Body image

10 Sep 2018

The online world can be an incredible place for children, letting them learn new things, express their thoughts and ideas, and connect with others. However, it can have a troubling impact on their body image. Children and adolescents have been reported to be most at risk for developing unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes about their bodies because of the edited, filtered, and PhotoShopped images and messages that bombard them online. At a time when they are focused on creating and developing their own identity, they are susceptible to both peer and parental pressure and media messages and images, which can have a large impact on how they see themselves, their body, and their self-worth.

People with body image issues feel worried and upset about their appearance. This may be a displeasure with their weight and shape or their skin colour and smoothness. They may be upset about being too thin or too fat, too tall or too short, too curvy or not curvy enough, too dark or too fair. The important thing to recognise about how people experience body image issues is that no two people are the same: someone might be deeply unhappy with a feature of their body that you would love to have.

Boys and girls also generally have different concerns about their body, but body image is not a “girl’s problem”. In fact, it is increasingly common for boys to experience anxieties and concerns about their bodies. However, boys are just less likely to talk about them. Regardless of why someone is dissatisfied with their body, it is an experience that is felt in similar ways, making it possible to tackle these issues with similar thoughtful and critical approaches.

What is body image?

Body image refers to the way we feel about our bodies. A positive body image is when you feel comfortable and happy with your body. This healthy body image is what we hope to promote and encourage in people. A negative body image is when a person feels upset or embarrassed about their body. This unhealthy body image can be worsened by comparisons to beauty standards set up in the media.

How could my child get body image issues from the Internet?

Body image issues are very complex and to say ‘going online makes my child feel bad about their body’ would be a gross oversimplification. Just like magazines of airbrushed models with perfect abs or posters of skinny, fair women may have an impact on how you feel about your body, the online world is full of messages and images that may impact your child.

One unique feature of the online world is social media, which is not just visual, but highly interactive. On social media, having more likes and followers are easy indicators of a person’s popularity and their online achievement. This can easily shape your child’s sense of self-worth. Social media allows your child to get real-time feedback and validation. They know that specific messages, images, and presentations of themselves are ‘liked’ better by other people, and the anonymous nature of some social media also lets them know when images or messages are not liked by others. These positive and negative comments and posts put huge amounts of pressure on a child to present themselves in only one way – the ‘right’ and ‘likeable’ way – online.

By virtue of the fact that people can selectively choose what to post and which versions of themselves to present, social media is often about someone’s appearance. People follow celebrities and online influencers, they have apps such as VSCO Snapseed to edit and filter their photos before posting them, they even have apps like Huji or Kuji Cam to make their photos look like they were taken on film – a new and popular fad – and they spend a lot of time talking about how they look. It is not unusual for people to spend a lot of time thinking about how to pose, when the light strikes best, where the best backdrops are, and even when the best time to post a photo to get optimum likes is – all for one photo.

Regardless of whether one is ‘popular’ online, viewing people’s ‘best selves’ every day and comparing that to one’s ‘real self’ can be a difficult experience for anyone, particularly children. Constant validation about their appearance can reinforce the importance of how they look (and specifically one way of looking) to how they are judged as a person.

Ultimately, the stronger the connection between how someone looks and how much they are worth – the more effort they put into curating their online identity – the greater the potential for body image issues. Young people can easily become trapped in a world where they are anxiously waiting for likes and comments, then feeling disappointed and hurt if they do not receive them, even deleting the post so that more people are not witness to their ‘failure’.

What are the consequences of having body image issues?

  • Spending too much time online, particularly on social media
  • Anxious when going online
  • Feelings of self-doubt and self-hate
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Self-harm
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Higher risk of suicide

How can I tell if my child has body image issues?

It can be hard to tell if someone has body image issues because they present so differently amongst people. However, here are some signs you can watch out for:

  • Spending more time online, especially on social media
  • Appearing upset or anxious when they go online
  • Taking more photos of themselves
  • Checking their appearance more often
  • Commenting about their appearance negatively
  • Hiding their body under baggy clothes
  • Exercising a lot more than usual
  • Eating a lot more or less than usual

What can I do to protect my child from body image issues?

  • Curate the media that your children watch: look up reviews of shows or movies beforehand to make sure they have body-positive messages - sites like Common Sense Media and Kids-in-Mind might make this easier for you.
  • Co-view with your child: whenever possible, sit down and watch the media win them. Instead of critiquing the type of media they are consuming, look for teaching moments where you can ask questions about the media they are consuming.
  • Encourage your child to actively use media instead of passively absorbing it: if your child thinks of media as something they choose instead of something passively in the background, the more conscious they will be about the types of media they choose to consume.
  • Teach your children that things in the media do not reflect reality, that media products are made for people who can make money from them, and that people in different times and different places have different ideas of what looks "beautiful" or "attractive".

I don’t know how to talk about this! What can I say to my child?

It is important to have a conversation with your child to question the truthfulness of images online and encourage them to challenge messages about how people should look. If you come across an image, you can ask questions like:

  • Who do you think created this image?
  • Do you think this image is real?
  • Do you think it has been edited, filtered, or manipulated in any way?
  • Who do you think edited this photo, the person in it or someone else?
  • Why do you think this image was created this way? What are the creators trying to achieve? You can explain to them that the diet industry alone earns $60 billion USD a year selling temporary weight less tools!
  • How do you feel seeing an image like this?
  • How do you think a young girl or boy would feel seeing something like this?

If you come across other types of media, like a movie or cartoon, you can ask questions like:

  • Which body shapes are shown very positively here? Which are shown negatively?
  • Which body shapes don’t appear on screen?
  • Why do you think these body shapes are shown this way?
  • What do you think the creators are trying to say? What message are they trying to send?
  • What do you think different people will think when they see this?
  • How do you feel seeing this?

Have an on-going conversation with your child about the impact of such images on themselves and others. This keeps the topic alive, so they know they can come to you if they have any questions, and also keeps it dynamic, since the type of conversation likely changes over time.

My son is 6 to 12 years

Through television, movies, video games, advertisements, and even their toys, your son might be starting get cues about what a ‘real man’ should look like. All of these might teach your son that it is important to be strong and muscled, and not too thin or heavy. With the recent spurt of hyper-masculine and ultra-muscled superheroes, as well as the cartoon characters and action figures they produce, this pressure has only increased! Boys often also learn from these characters that they need to be tough and aggressive, and not show weakness.

Here are some ways you can help your son think more critically about messages in the media so that he does not internalise them.

  • Point out everyday heroes: in the tune of the Higglytown Heroes, encourage him to think about how different people in all occupations can be heroes, such as bus drivers, nurses, waiters, and construction workers. Show your son that different body shapes are equally worthy.
  • Introduce him to a diverse group of role models: consider buying a book like “Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different” by Ben Brooks, which is aimed at young boys and has a long list of men who have succeeded by being different, from Lionel Messi to Galileo Galilei.
  • Compliment him differently: instead of giving compliments based on his appearance or strength, compliment him for being kind, open with his emotions, honest, or sincere. Let him know that men can and should have these qualities too!
  • Be a good role model: as a father, grandfather, or guardian, your boy learns a lot from you. Make sure that you do not deride your own appearance or stress over not being ‘manly’ enough in front of him.
  • Talk to him: the best way to get in front of the problem is to have an open discussion with your son, so that he feels able to come to you if he ever has a problem.

If he is watching a character, or has a toy, with an exaggerated body shape, ask him questions like:

  • Is this how you or the adults you know look like?
  • Why do you think the people who made this toy or character made him look like this?
  • Do you need to have big muscles to be a hero?
  • Can you think of heroes who don't use big muscles to do cool and good things? Examples may include doctors or paramedics who save lives or people who work at pet shelters to protect animals.

If he is watching a show or movie or playing a game that features ‘tough guys’ with large bodies, ask these questions while watching or playing with him:

  • How do the good and bad guys look different?
  • Do the boys or men you know look and act like this?
  • What’s the difference between this world on the screen and the real world?
  • Does this game make you solve problems by hurting people?
  • Can you think of other ways to solve the problem without hurting someone?

    My son is 13 to 17

    Your teenage son is likely becoming more familiar with what it means to ‘be a man’ from the media, and may even be trying to look like the bodies they see on screen. Teenage boys often feel pressure to look muscled to look cool, and try to gain muscle mass. Since their bodies are changing at different rates, they might also feel pressure when compared to the other boys in their group of friends. Your son may also be consuming media with highly muscular and very tough and violent characters. Here are some ways you can help your son think critically about these characters and their characteristics.

    • Introduce him to a diverse group of role models: point out everyday heroes in your lives, from nurses to bus drivers, and consider introducing him to real-life heroes like Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, and Alan Turing, so that he understands that everyone, regardless of their body type or shape, can be successful in their own way.
    • Compliment him differently: instead of giving compliments based on his appearance or strength, compliment him for being kind, open with his emotions, honest, or sincere. Let him know that men can and should have these qualities too!
    • Be a good role model: as a father, grandfather, or guardian, your boy learns a lot from you. Make sure that you do not deride your own appearance or stress over not being ‘manly’ enough in front of him.
    • Talk to him: the best way to get in front of the problem is to have an open discussion with your son, so that he feels able to come to you if he ever has a problem.

    If your son is exercising heavily, you can ask him questions like:

    • Why do you want to do this?
    • Do you know what makes a healthy exercise regime?
    • Who are the heroes you like best in the media you consume? Who do you consider a hero in real life? How are they similar or different?
    • How do your favourite heroes in media solve problems?
    • Are there ways of solving the same problems without violence? Encourage your son to learn about heroes who embody values like courage and perseverance without using violence.

    If your son is using social media like Instagram and Snapchat, you can ask him questions like:

    • What makes a picture look good?
    • What things about a picture make it more likely to get more likes?
    • What are some tricks you or your friends use to make a picture look good? For example, do you use particular filters or post photos at specific times of the day?
    • Do you think your friends edit their photos before posting them? Why do you think they edit photos?
    • How do you feel when you see a photo of someone that's been edited so that they look more muscled or more attractive?
    • Do you feel good if people don't like your photo? Why do their likes matter?

    My daughter is 6 to 12 years

    It has been shown that dolls and characters on screens can influence how young girls think about themselves and their bodies, with these shows stressing how important it is to be ‘attractive’ and sexual. Young girls also get media messages that it is more important to be popular and attractive than good at what they do. Here are some ways you can help your daughter understand the differences between the media’s beauty ideals and reality.

    • Point out everyday heroes: in the tune of the Higglytown Heroes, encourage her to think about how different people in all occupations can be successful, such as bus drivers, nurses, waitresses, and construction workers. Show your daughter that all body shapes are equally worthy!
    • Introduce her to a diverse group of role models: consider buying a book like “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo so that she sees 100 role models of different body types, shapes, and abilities – all achieving greatness.
    • Compliment her differently: instead of giving compliments based on her appearance or beauty, compliment her for being bright, strong, determined, outspoken, and a leader. Let her know that girls and women can and should have these qualities too!
    • Be a good role model: as a mother, grandmother, or guardian, your girl learns a lot from you. Make sure that you do not deride your own appearance or stress over not being ‘beautiful’ or ‘skinny’ enough in front of her.
    • Talk to her: the best way to get in front of the problem is to have an open discussion with your daughter, so that she feels able to come to you if she ever has a problem.

    If your daughter is playing with a sexualized doll or watching a sexualized character, ask these questions while playing or watching with her:

    • What do you like best about the doll or character?
    • Which characters are more popular? Are they also skinnier or more attractive?
    • Are there any characters who are not skinny? Do you have any dolls that are not?
    • Are there any characters that are not wearing revealing outfits?
    • Is this character supposed to be an adult? If it is, do you anyone in real life who looks like this?
    • Why do you think the people who made this doll or character made it look so different from real-life women?
    • How do you think people feel looking at this?

    If your daughter is watching shows or movies that have characters with only certain body types and suggest that it's important for girls to be attractive or popular, ask them questions like:

    • Do you know lots of women who look like this character?
    • What is the most important thing about her?
    • Is it the most important thing about a person how they look? What are other things important about someone?
    • How do the "good" characters look in this? How do the "bad" characters look? How are they different?
    • Which character would you want to be friends with and why?

    If you notice that your child is talking about celebrities or models a lot, ask them questions like:

    • Do you know lots of women in real life who look like celebrities?
    • Do you think you look like a celebrity?
    • What do you like the most about how celebrities look? Do you think you should look like that?
    • Does seeing these pictures make you feel differently about the way you look?

    My daughter is 13 to 17

    Your teenager daughter is likely taking more of an interest in popular shows, movies, celebrities and more, which impact the ways she views her bodies and possibly her wishes to alter it. You can help her to uncover the truths behind these beauty standards.

    • Introduce her to a diverse group of role models: point out everyday heroes in your lives, from nurses to bus drivers, and consider introducing her to real-life heroes like Anne Frank, Katherine Johnson (who is the star of the movie Hidden Figures), Maya Angelou (who wrote many great books), or even Malala Yousafzai, so that she understands that everyone, regardless of their body type or shape, can be successful and create positive change.
    • Compliment her differently: instead of giving compliments based on her appearance or beauty, compliment her for being bright, strong, determined, outspoken, and a leader. Let her know that girls and women can and should have these qualities too!
    • Be a good role model: as a mother, grandmother, or guardian, your girl learns a lot from you. Make sure that you do not deride your own appearance or stress over not being ‘beautiful’ or ‘skinny’ enough in front of her.
    • Talk to her: the best way to get in front of the problem is to have an open discussion with your daughter, so that she feels able to come to you if she ever has a problem.

    If you notice your daughter taking an interest in media such as through music videos or movies that show women and their bodies negatively, ask her questions like:

    • What's your favourite part of this? What do you like the most about this?
    • Do you think it is good for girls to want to look or act like the women in this? What are some things about them that might be good or bad for girls to imitate?
    • Do you know girls or women in real life who act or look like this?

    If your daughter is using social media like Instagram and Snapchat, you can ask her questions like:

    • What makes a picture look good?
    • What things about a picture make it more likely to get more likes?
    • What are some tricks you or your friends use to make a picture look good? For example, do you use particular filters or post photos at specific times of the day?
    • Do you think your friends edit their photos before posting them? Why do you think they edit photos?
    • How do you feel when you see a photo of someone that's been edited so that they look thinner or more attractive?
    • Do you feel good if people don't like your photo? Why do their likes matter?