Back to School: How To Overcome Appearance Anxiety

Back to School: How To Overcome Appearance Anxiety


Bien avec mon corps
Based on an interview with Dr. Stéphanie Léonard, psychologist

As the school year approaches, some teens begin to feel more and more tense. While back-to-school is synonymous with joy and reunions for some, for others it’s associated with social anxiety, judgment and discrimination. Stigma related to weight is among one of the main causes of bullying during adolescence.

Consequently, 90% of Quebec students have witnessed bullying related to a person’s weight, and around one in five young people considered overweight by our society has been a victim of such bullying.*

This phenomenon is even more prevalent when young people’s bodies are going through rapid changes. In the space of a summer, girls’ hips may get wider and boys may grow so quickly that their bodies thin out. It can then be very difficult to face the stares and teasing of peers.

Here’s some advice from Dr. Stéphanie Léonard, a psychologist who specializes in body image, to help you better understand why some young people may develop anxiety about their appearance and how you can help them have an easier time going back to school.

Why do some teens develop anxiety about their body image during back-to-school season?

The school year is an emotionally charged period for some teens. Already worried about academic pressures, they also have to deal with another concern: the way people look at them. At an age where the body is changing rapidly, keeping a positive body image can be a significant challenge.

It has also been noted that the majority of high school students are unhappy with their physical appearance, even though half of them possess a normal or below-normal body weight, according to a study by the ISQ (2018). Girls, in particular, are more likely to want to lose weight (31% vs. 16%), while boys are more likely to want to gain weight (19% vs. 6%) to become more muscular.

Constantly exposed to images of unattainable bodies through social media and the news, young people may progressively develop a negative perception of themselves. This is even more likely when their friends have a tendency to make negative comments about their appearance or the appearance of others. Teens can thus be under the impression that, in order to be accepted and loved, they have to conform to physical stereotypes imposed by society.

By going back to school, young people are subjected once more to the pressure of their peers’ judgment. Teens often compare themselves to each other. Trying to meet popular beauty standards can become a major concern for them. Negative comments or teasing related to their physical appearance can be particularly harmful and can reinforce a negative perception of their body.

Some young people therefore develop a negative body image and start to adopt behaviour that is bad for their health, such as:

  • Trying dangerous diets that drastically limit their food intake.
  • Excessively exercising, which can cause injuries as well as hormonal disorders, heart trouble and mental health problems.
  • Consuming toxic products to gain muscle mass or unregulated weight loss medications.

In the long term, teens may develop anxiety, depression or eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. All of this can affect their class attendance and their academic performance.

What can you do to help your child better handle their anxiety about their physical appearance when going back to school?

You’ve noticed that your teen has a tendency to:

  • put themselves down over their appearance, compare themselves to others,
  • avoid certain activities due to their discomfort with their body,
  • isolate themselves, withdraw into themselves, be less cheerful,
  • change their dietary habits, avoid family meals.

These may be signs that your child has anxiety related to a poor body image.

Even if your first reflex is to reassure your child about their physical appearance, it is more helpful to them if you’re simply there to listen to them, without any judgment.

You should therefore avoid making comments like:

“But look, you’re really beautiful/handsome … You’ve got nothing to worry about!” or “Don’t think about that; you’ll see, things will work out fine.” 

Instead, ask questions to better understand what your child is going through and how you can help (what would do them good). Also acknowledge that the back-to-school season may be a stressful and uncomfortable time for them.

Use phrases like: “I understand where you’re coming from, going back to school isn’t easy”, “I’m here if you want to talk about it”, “We’ll figure something out together so that things go as smoothly as possible for you.” Be there to comfort and support them.

Be sure to remind them that many teens have a tough time with the ways their bodies are changing. Besides having to make an effort to adapt to these changes, they also have to deal with the images of “perfect” bodies that are constantly circulated by the media. Beauty and fashion industries make enormous profits by exploiting the insecurities people have about their body image.

To help your child broaden their perception of beauty beyond stereotypical criteria, share articles with them that help them become aware of their body image and that encourage them to take a step back from their own biases related to physical appearance. You can also suggest that they visit the site “Bien avec mon corps ” (available in French only) to learn more or find help. Don’t forget to also get informed by taking a look at the articles in our Family Toolkit.

In addition, try to have an inclusive discussion with your teen about how there is no “perfect body” and how each person is unique and beautiful in their own way. Adopting a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep before all else help you stay healthy and maintain a healthy relationship with your body.

Finally, rather than fixate on physical appearance, invest in your child’s internal qualities and skills to improve their self-esteem.

In conclusion, in order to prepare well for going back to school:

  • Try to emphasize the aspects of going to school that your child views positively. For example: seeing their friends again, getting back into their favourite cultural or athletic activities, etc.
  • Try to encourage them to speak about their discomfort with their friends. By having the support of their peers, your teen will be better equipped to deal with the stares of others at school.
  • Educate your child as much as possible about body acceptance by sharing different content with them and adopting inclusive speech.
  • Emphasize the non-physical traits of your teen that are positive, inspirational and strong.

Happy back to school season!


*According to a study by Professor Annie Aimé of the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) in collaboration with the Quebec Public Health Association in 2018.

What does it mean to accept your body? What are the psychological impacts of a negative body image? Where do the beauty standards come from and why is it sometimes so hard to love your body when it doesn’t correspond to these criteria?

In this video, psychologist Maeve O’Leary-Barrett, gives several tips to young people to help them develop a positive and expanded vision of the body and the notion of beauty.

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