Author: Marie-Michèle Ricard,
Psychoeducator, psychotherapist, teacher.
Did you know that more than half of young people are dissatisfied with their appearance? It’s not surprising, given that it only takes three minutes of exposure to stereotypical beauty models in magazines to intensify feelings of depression, shame, guilt, insecurity, stress, and body dissatisfaction1. Young people sometimes develop unhealthy habits trying to conform to these unrealistic body ideals, which can then affect their physical and mental health.
But as a parent, how can you tell if your child has body image issues? And how can you help them learn to accept themselves?
What is body image?
It’s the mental representation that we have of our own bodies. This image is associated with thoughts, emotions and behaviours, and can be positive or negative.
A young person’s self-esteem is built on:
- their physical characteristics (gender, age, weight, etc.),
- interpersonal relationships and
—together, all these characteristics play a role in how satisfied they are with their body.
Body dissatisfaction begins in childhood and then increases with age to reach its peak in adolescence. Children as young as five have been seen to express body dissatisfaction, and their need to control their appearance seems to be triggered even more strongly when they start school.
For teens, body image is heavily influenced by puberty and all the changes it brings. During this pivotal phase, young people must constantly adapt to a new body image.
How does poor body image affect teens?
When a teenager has a negative body image, they are very critical about their body and feel shame, guilt, sadness or anger towards it.
Being dissatisfied with their body increases the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with the body, but also with food, which in turn can lead to a desire for control or weight loss and sometimes to eating disorders. Teens may also experience anxiety, depression and issues at school, and may seek to isolate themselves from others2.
When should you start to worry?
When you notice that your child has a poor body image, you should observe how it impacts their mood, perceptions and behaviours. If you notice that they:
- isolate themselves and avoid certain social activities;
- refrain from eating or make significant changes to their diet;
- eat only when they’re alone;
- have symptoms of depression or anxiety related to their diet or body;
- criticize themselves and keep talking about their appearance,
they may be overly preoccupied, or even obsessed, with their body image. Talk to them about it as soon as possible and don’t hesitate to turn to a healthcare professional for help.
What role do you play in the development of your child’s body image?
As a parent, you play an important role in building your child’s body image, as you are one of the role models that they will identify with. Your own body image, your eating behaviours and the comments you make about weight are significant points of reference for your child4.
By having restrictive eating habits at home5, commenting on your teen’s weight or that of others6, or even comparing the weights of other siblings, you may be unknowingly harming your teen’s body image.
Similarly, you should avoid complimenting or passing judgment on people’s appearance, clothing, face or weight. These topics are very common in everyday conversations, but even when the comments are positive, they could have a negative impact on your child when they hear them. So it’s best to avoid talking about weight with your teenager, even if your intentions are good or the conversation is health-related.
On the other hand, conversations that focus on healthy relationships with their body and food (listening to their body’s signals, having a balanced diet, not restricting food, etc.) or on the importance of being physically active for the fun of it, without mentioning weight, will help to:
- prevent problematic eating behaviours
- promote the development of a healthy relationship with food and the body;
- encourage the attainment of a natural weight7.
 Stice et al., 1994.
 Tiggemann, 2005.
 Traoré et al., 2018.
 Thompson et al., 2002.
 Tremblay & Limbos, 2009.
 Coughlin et al., 2003.
 Pudney et al., 2019.