Encouraging a Healthy Body Image

It seems like just yesterday that you had to coax your daughter to bathe. But then she turned 11 and started spending hours in the bathroom and sizing herself up in every mirror she passes. She seems consumed by her looks. What happened? And is it healthy?

As they approach the teen years, it’s common and natural for kids to become more interested in appearances — their own and others’ — seemingly all of a sudden. Their bodies are going through some big changes as they grow and go through puberty. As preteens change physically they become more aware of how they look.

Growing and puberty affect more than a preteen’s outward appearance — body image is affected, too. Having a healthy body image means that most of your feelings, ideas, and opinions about your body and appearance are positive. It means accepting and appreciating your body and feeling mostly satisfied with your appearance.

Developing a healthy body image happens over time. It can be influenced by experiences and shaped by the opinions and feedback of others and by cultural messages.

Body Image and Appearance

Body image can be especially vulnerable during the preteen and teen years because appearances change so much and cultural messages that fuel dissatisfaction can be very strong. Being criticized or teased about appearance can be particularly hurtful at this age.

Preteens and teens often compare their looks with others’ or with media images of the “right” way to look. In cultures in which looks seem to matter so much — and ideal images are so unrealistic — it’s all too common to be dissatisfied with some aspect of appearance.

But feeling too self-critical about appearance can interfere with body image. And poor body image can hurt a teen’s overall self-image, too.

Beyond Appearances

As teens mature mentally and emotionally, they will develop a more complex self-image — one that incorporates their interests, talents, unique qualities, values, aspirations, and relationships. But during the early teen years, the image they see in the mirror makes up a big part of their self-image.

And while it’s true that appearance isn’t everything, feeling satisfied with appearance means a lot. If you’re wondering why your child suddenly seems so focused on appearance, keep in mind that preteens are:

  • Adapting to a new reflection. Spending extra time grooming, making comparisons with friends and celebrities, and experimenting with clothing, hair, and makeup can be ways of getting to know and like the new self reflected in the mirror.
  • Making a fashion statement. When preteens and teens express their taste in clothes and hairstyles, they’re making statements about themselves. Experimenting with and defining their styles is one way to express their interests, personality, independence, and identity.
  • Finding a way to belong. Peers, groups, and cliques — which take center stage during the teen years — can also play a role in heightening young teens’ concerns about appearances. Dressing a certain way might be a way of feeling included, fitting in, standing out, or belonging to a group of peers.

Boys and Body Image

It’s not just girls who become focused on appearance. Boys might not be as vocal about it, but they can worry just as much about their looks. They may spend the same amount of time in front of the mirror, weighing where to part their hair, what kind of product to use, assessing acne, and deciding whether or not to shave. And when your son emerges wearing pants that sag as if he hasn’t quite finished getting dressed, he may in fact have spent hours getting them to hang at that exact angle.

Self-Critical Feelings

Feeling satisfied with appearance isn’t always easy. Many kids who have positive body images become self-conscious or self-critical as they enter the teen years. It’s not uncommon for preteens and teens to express dissatisfaction about their appearance or to compare themselves with their friends, celebrities, or people they see in ads.

Our culture emphasizes the need to look just right. Ads for everything from makeup and hair products to clothing and toothpaste send messages that people need to look a certain way to be happy. It’s hard not to be influenced by that.

You might hear your son or daughter fret about anything from height and hair to the shape of their nose or the size of their ears — any aspect that doesn’t match the “ideal.”

Body shape and size can concern them, too. It’s important for preteens or teens to eat nutritious foods, limit junk foods, and get plenty of physical activity, but it’s not advisable for them to diet. Being overly concerned about weight, restricting food, or exercising excessively can be signs of an eating disorder. Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these signs in your kids.

Self-criticism that seems constant or excessive or causes daily distress that lasts might signal an extreme body image problem known as body dysmorphic disorder. This condition involves obsessions and compulsions about slight or imagined imperfections in appearance.

A Natural Transition

In most cases, the focus on appearance is a very natural and common part of becoming a teenager. Typically, these expressions of frustration resolve quickly and don’t warrant concern — just plenty of patience, empathy, support, and perspective from parents.

Still, parents can be frustrated when looks seem to matter so much to kids. It can be a delicate balance to help preteens feel confident and satisfied with their looks while encouraging them not to be overly concerned with the superficial. It’s important to encourage teens to take pride in their appearance but also to emphasize the deeper qualities that matter more.

Boosting Body Image

As preteens try on different looks, parents can help by being accepting and supportive, providing positive messages, and encouraging other qualities that keep looks in perspective. Be sure to:

  • Accept and understand. Recognize that being concerned about looks is as much a part of the teen years as a changing voice and learning to shave. You know that in the grand scheme of things your daughter’s freckles don’t matter, but to her they might seem paramount. As frustrating as it can be when they monopolize the bathroom, avoid criticizing kids for being concerned about appearances. As they grow, concern about their looks will stop dominating their lives.
  • Give lots of compliments. Provide reassurance about kids’ looks and about all their other important qualities. As much as they may seem not to notice or care, simple statements like “you’ve got the most beautiful smile” or “that shirt looks great on you” really do matter. Compliment them on other physical attributes, such as strength, speed, balance, energy, or grace. Appreciating physical qualities and capabilities helps build a healthy body image.
  • Compliment what’s inside too. Notice out loud all the personal qualities that you love about your kids — how generous your son is to share with his little sister, the determined way that your daughter studies for her tests, or how your son stood by his best friend. Reassure them when they express insecurity. When you hear “I hate my hair” or “I’m so little,” provide valuable counterpoint.
  • Talk about what appearances mean. Guide your kids to think a little more deeply about appearances and how people express themselves. Talk about the messages that certain styles might convey. One outfit may send the message “I’m ready to party!” while others might say “I’m heading to school” or “I’m too lazy to do laundry.”
  • Set reasonable boundaries. Be patient, but also set boundaries on how much time your kids can spend on grooming and dressing. Tell them it’s not OK to inconvenience others or let chores go. Limits help kids understand how to manage time, be considerate of others’ needs, share resources, exercise a little self-discipline, and keep appearances in perspective.
  • Be a good role model. How you talk about your own looks sets a powerful example. Constantly complaining about or fretting over your appearance teaches your kids to cast the same critical eye on themselves. Almost everyone is dissatisfied with certain elements of their appearance, but talk instead about what your body can do, not just how it looks. Instead of griping about how big your legs are, talk about how they’re strong enough to help you hike up a mountain.

Having a healthy and positive body image means liking your body, appreciating it, and being grateful for its qualities and capabilities. When parents care for and appreciate their own bodies, they teach their kids to do the same.

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2012