Building positive body image in kids
It’s important that kids feel good about their bodies. Having a positive body image will help them develop strong self-esteem, resilience and choose healthier behaviours. It doesn’t matter what your child looks like, there are ways you can help them feel good about their body.
What is a positive body image?
A positive body image is important for your child’s mental and physical wellbeing. If a child has a positive body image, it means they accept, appreciate and respect their body. Even if they dislike part of themselves, body positivity will help them feel comfortable and happy about their body most of the time.
It’s important for everyone — both adults and children — to feel good about their body so that they have better self-esteem or healthier sense of self. A positive body image also improves self-acceptance. This supports the development of resilience to illnesses such as eating disorders and depression. A child with a positive body image will be more likely to:
- have a healthy outlook on life
- eat more healthily
- be happier within themselves
While puberty is a high risk time for poor body image and other resulting issues, body image is important even for the youngest children. By the age of 3 or 4, children start to realise that their bodies belong to them. They will recognise that their body is different from other people. When they start school, many children compare their bodies to those of other children. Research has shown that children as young as 8 may start to develop poor body image. It is important to encourage positive body image from a young age.
What can affect a child’s body image?
Everyone can feel dissatisfied with their body from time to time. Children may be upset both about things they can change and things they can’t, such as:
- whether they are fat or thin
- whether they have freckles
- how big their muscles are
- their height
- how fast they can run
The way children feel about their bodies is influenced by many things. This includes how their parents, relatives, teachers and friends talk about their own bodies. Teasing or making comments about your child’s body can make them feel worse or bad about themselves.
Try to model good behaviours by not constantly talking about losing weight, dieting and criticising your own body. Also, do not criticise the bodies of others. These can lead to your child developing a poor body image, even if they have nothing to worry about in terms of their own body shape and health.
One of the biggest influences of poor body image is the media. Like women, children are bombarded with messages about body image from many different media, including:
- the internet and social media
All of these messages influence your child’s idea of what a body should look like. Social media usually only shows the edited ‘highlights’ of people’s lives, and are typically edited and filtered, adding to already unrealistic ideas about appearance. Your child may not be old enough to understand that these images aren’t real. This can encourage them to have unhealthy ideas about their body image.
Girls are at more risk of having negative body image than boys, especially as they grow older. Although, many boys are also unhappy with their bodies. Children who have a larger body size are also more at risk.
It is helpful to talk to them about the media. Explain that the images they see on the internet or in magazines aren’t real — those people have stylists, special cameras and computers to make them look like that.
Be conscious of the media your child is exposed to. Your child may also be aware of your online presence. Take care with the comments that you make, and the people you engage with online. Encourage them to never make a comment about how someone looks, but how they seem, for example, happy or relaxed.
Ways to build your child’s positive body image
Your child’s body image can be strongly influenced by you.
It is important to teach your child to be physically healthy, without focussing on their weight or appearance.
One way to build a positive body image in your child, is to make exercise fun. Children love to use their bodies and learn what they can do. You can make physical activity enjoyable family activities. These may include swimming, dancing in the loungeroom, kicking a ball around outside or riding a bike.
If you hear your child criticising themselves (‘I suck’, ‘I hate my nose’), encourage your child to think instead about the things they like about themselves. These may be aspects of their appearance, character, or personality.
You can also teach your child to appreciate everything their body can do — it can breathe, move and think.
You could encourage them to look around at other people, such as at the shops. Help them appreciate that people come in many different shapes, sizes and colours.
It’s important to build your child’s self-esteem. Praise your child’s achievements — not how they look — and do the same for their friends and yourself. Give your child lots of love and cuddles and focus on their strengths. Talk to the school if you think your child is being bullied.
Dealing with weight
You may be worried about if your child is overweight, or if they are being teased about their weight by others. You can help them achieve a healthy weight by:
- increasing the amount of physical activity they do
- offering them a wide variety of healthy foods
- limiting foods with added salt, sugar or fat
Ensure that you do not to comment on your child’s weight or criticise their body. Rather than commenting on their appearance, find something about their character to comment on, for example, how kind they are or how hard they try.
It’s important not to make food and weight a moral issue. For example, avoid using words like 'good' or 'bad' to describe food. Completely banning a certain food type only makes us want it more.
If you’re dieting yourself, or worried about your own body image, don’t involve your child. It’s a good idea to eat meals together as a family, hide your scales, and make sure you don’t let your child know if you are on a diet.
Where to go for help
If you are worried about your child’s body image, you can talk to:
- your doctor
- your child’s school or their teacher
- a child health nurse
- a dietitian
- a psychologist
For more information about children and body image, visit these websites:
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Last reviewed: May 2022