How children think and feel about their body and the way they look can affect their mental health in both a positive and negative way.
Body image relates to children’s body size or shape, height, skin colour, appearance, facial features, physical disabilities or differences.
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.
Studies show that primary school girls are more likely to compare their appearance to their peers, while boys are more likely to focus on how strong their body is, usually in relation to how good they are at sport.
Family, cultural and community attitudes and opinions about what is “normal” for both boys and girls can influence a child’s view of how they think and feel about themselves and others.
The media can also affect what children think “normal” is - this sometimes leads to children creating unrealistic expectations about their bodies. Other factors, such as long-term health conditions, may also have an impact.
How body image affects mental health
Being body positive can support mental and physical health by boosting confidence and helping children to develop a healthy image of themselves. Not measuring their worth based on how they look can boost overall wellbeing, and means children are more likely to think about being healthy and fit, rather than being a certain body size.
A negative body image or body dissatisfaction can lead to a child having:
- low self-esteem
- low confidence
- poor self-perception.
It can also affect a child’s:
- quality of life
- participation in school
- achievement in school
- eating habits – this may lead to unhealthy eating patterns, which could put the child at risk of developing eating disorders.
Spotting the signs
It’s normal for children to compare themselves to others. This is especially true during pubescent years when children notice their body physically changing, and this may not happen at the same time as their friends’.
But there are a few things that school staff can look out for that may suggest a child 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:
- 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 children making negative comments
- equating “fat” with “bad”
- refusing types of food because “it makes me fat”.
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. Children may also talk about wanting to “correct” their “flaw” through cosmetic surgery.
Children 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.
What schools can do
Schools have an important role in creating a positive environment that helps children value how they see and feel about themselves.
Schools should help to challenge narrow and idealised notions of appearance through celebrating children’s talents, personalities and differences, as well as helping them to focus on having a healthy body and relationship with food.
Encouraging children from an early age to think positively about their body is thought to help prevent problems later on.
Teaching children social and emotional skills such as tolerance, empathy and kindness can help to boost self-esteem, confidence and resilience, and encourage children to value difference and respect each other.
Here are some ways that schools can promote body positivity:
Education and training
- Train school staff to recognise the early signs that may suggest a child 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 problems.
- 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 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 – this happens more often between mothers and daughters. It’s helpful for schools to provide information to parents and carers on how they can, from a very early age, positively influence their children’s feelings about their bodies.
In the classroom:
- Use PSHE lessons to help children feel proud and confident about the way they look, and to celebrate difference and diversity.
- Reinforce positive body image messaging through making sure that classroom and school posters, pictures, books, music, toys, dolls 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 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.
- Show children, through PE and physical play activities, 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.
- Five activities and presentations on boosting body confidence and self-esteem for ages 8-16 – sign up to access for free.
- Your Body is Brilliant book for lower KS1
- How it feels to be a child with an eating disorder - video
- Healthy Inside and Out assembly guide and presentation
- Focusing on children’s strengths: