Body image is how a child feels about and sees their body. It can relate to body size or shape, skin colour, appearance, facial features or physical disabilities/differences.A positive body image supports physical and mental health. It can boost confidence and help children develop a healthy image of themselves. A negative body image or body dissatisfaction can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and poor self-perception. It can also affect learning, participation and school achievement, lead to unhealthy eating practices and increase the risk of developing eating disorders in later life.
For young children, attitudes about body shape and size can start as early as three or four years old, when they are already becoming aware of societal pressures to look a certain way. Family and cultural/community attitudes and opinions about what is ‘normal’ for both boys and girls will also influence a child’s view of how they feel and think about themselves and others.
Spotting the signs
- From a young age many children start to equate ‘fat’ with ‘bad’.
- Children might start to refuse types of food because ‘it makes me fat’.
- They might comment on the body size/shape of their favourite celebrities and/or TV/film/book characters.
- They might say that a friend or peer has said something negative about how they look or teased them about their appearance.
- They might want to cover up parts of their body because they feel self-conscious.
- They may not want to change for PE.
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Schools have an important role in creating an environment where everyone feels special and valued for qualities, talents and skills unrelated to appearance; where children can develop a positive body image for themselves as well as a healthy relationship with food. Starting early by promoting a healthy sense of self-worth and positive attitudes to body image is thought to help avoid later problems. All children can benefit from schools delivering good-quality teaching programmes supporting children’s social and emotional skills, promoting self-esteem, confidence and resilience. Such programmes can also help encourage and nurture attitudes such as tolerance, empathy, kindness and respect for peers and others; qualities that can then help buffer children against unhelpful body image messages and also prevent bullying.
- Improve body confidence by teaching children through PSHE activities to celebrate diversity and difference, valuing each child’s strengths and abilities and being happy and proud with who they are and how they look. Set high expectations for all children.
- Through PE and physical play activities show children that being active is about having fun; not losing weight.
- Explore what it feels like to be healthy, rather than what it looks like. Encourage healthy food choices and support children to make their own decisions about food. Emphasise the role of food as fuel.
- Reinforce positive body image messaging across the school. Staff should be aware of how they present themselves, how they talk to each other and to children, as well as the language they use about body size, shape and appearance.
- Make sure that classroom and school posters, pictures, books, music, toys, dolls and other materials are diverse in terms of body size, shape, skin colour, abilities and disabilities, etc.
- Bullying: develop effective policies and practices that do not tolerate appearance-related teasing and bullying; proactively support children who are teased or bullied as a result of their appearance, body size or shape, or ethnicity.
- Develop children’s media literacy skills – encourage critical and analytical thinking around how people are portrayed in the media and how images can be changed and air-brushed.
- Encourage pupils to explore the pros and cons of social media, especially about how it can mould attitudes about how they look and encourage them to seek and earn approval based on their appearance.
- Provide information for families in the school newsletter or on the website that looks at how to support children to develop a positive body image and a strong sense of self. Many children begin to absorb unhealthy attitudes from families and peers.
- Help staff recognise the early signs when a child may begin to struggle with issues related to unhealthy body image. For example, this could include a persistently distorted view of their body, known as body dysmorphic disorder or early signs of eating problems.