How children and young people think and feel about their body and the way they look can affect their mental health in both a positive and negative way.
If children and young people feel that they do not match up to certain standards, or that they are not ‘good enough’ in some ways, it can affect them negatively.
This page focuses on body image as it relates to children’s body size or shape, height, skin colour, appearance, facial features, physical disabilities or differences.
Research has shown that for young children, attitudes about body shape and size may start as early as three or four years old.
This trend continues into adolescence, with one Mental Health Foundation survey finding that among young people aged 13–19, 35% said their body image causes them to ‘often’ or ‘always’ worry.
Body image issues affect both boys and girls. The same Mental Health Foundation survey found that 46% of girls said their body image caused them to worry, compared to 25% of boys.
There are many factors which may influence body image in children and young people, including the media and social media, their parents, and their peers.
How body image affects mental health
Being body positive can support mental and physical health by boosting confidence and helping children and young people to develop a healthy image of themselves.
Not measuring their worth based on how they look can boost overall wellbeing, and means children and young people are more likely to attach their self-worth and self-image to their internal, rather than external, characteristics.
A negative body image or body dissatisfaction can influence a child or young person in many ways. This can include:
- lower self-esteem
- lower levels of confidence
- increased levels of anxiety
- depression or low mood
- poor self-perception
- critical self thoughts
- social isolation or withdrawal
- self-harming behaviour
Identifying the signs
It’s normal for children and young people to compare themselves to others. This is especially true as children get older - their bodies start to change, and they become more aware of societal pressure to look a certain way.
There are a few things that school staff can look out for that may suggest a child or young person has an unhealthy view of their body that could be concerning and maybe affecting the way they feel about themselves and engage in school.
Here are some signs to look out for – this includes children and young people:
- feeling overly worried about how they look
- wanting to cover up parts of their body because they feel self-conscious
- not wanting to change or take part in physical education (PE)
- being bullied for the way they look – or their peers making negative comments
- having rigid thinking patterns about what is ‘good’ vs ‘bad’
- refusing types of food because ‘it makes me fat’
- changes in their social functioning or interaction
- changes in mood
- control of eating
If you are worried that a student is at risk of an eating disorder, involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.
Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition that affects both girls and boys. While it’s more common in teenagers, younger children can still be affected.
Children with this condition will excessively focus on, and worry about, a particular aspect of their appearance that they’re not happy with.
They will often act out repetitive behaviours like seeking reassurance, looking in mirrors or avoiding mirrors, going to a lot of effort to cover up “flaws”, and comparing themselves to others.
It can often cause huge distress, as well as affect their ability to thrive at home, in school or in other aspects of their lives. They may also talk about wanting to “correct” their “flaw” through cosmetic surgery.
Children and young people with this condition are more at risk of self-harming, having suicidal thoughts, and developing depression and social anxiety.
School staff should speak to their designated safeguarding lead if they are concerned about a child.
Body dysmorphia is different to gender dysphoria, which may occur in children and young people who are questioning their gender identity. Find out more about gender identity.
What schools and further education settings can do
Here are some ways that schools and further education settings can promote body positivity:
Education and training
- Train school/college staff to recognise the early signs that may suggest a pupil is struggling with body dissatisfaction or has unhealthy views of body image. This could include a persistently distorted view of their body or early signs of eating disorders.
- Staff should be aware of the language they use when talking about body size, shape and appearance with each other and pupils, to avoid reinforcing negative views of body image or stereotypes.
- Develop effective policies and practices that do not tolerate appearance-related teasing, such as body shaming, and support children and young people who are teased or bullied as a result of their appearance, body size or shape, or ethnicity.
- Negative family attitudes to body image can be passed on to children and young people. It’s helpful for schools and colleges to provide information to parents and carers on how they can positively influence their children’s feelings about their bodies.
In the classroom
- The health and wellbeing curriculum in each UK country covers mental wellbeing alongside information about healthy choices and exercise. Schools should use these lessons to help children and young people think about health rather than appearance, and celebrate their positive attributes that aren’t linked to their appearance.
- Reinforce positive body image messaging through making sure that classroom and school/college posters, pictures, books, music, toys and other materials are diverse in terms of body size, shape, height, skin colour, abilities and disabilities, etc.
- Develop children’s digital literacy skills by helping them to think critically about how people are portrayed in the media and through social media, and how images can be changed and air-brushed.
- Encourage pupils to explore the pros and cons of social media. For example, it helps them connect with their peers, but it can reinforce attitudes about how they look, and encourage them to seek and earn approval based on their appearance.
- Schools can show children and young people, through physical education, that being active is about having fun - and that exercise and being active can help to relieve stress, improve memory and boost your mood.
- Explore what it feels like to be healthy, rather than what it looks like. Encourage healthy food choices and emphasise the role of food as fuel.