What are Body Image Concerns?
Body image is the dynamic perception of how one’s body looks, feels, and moves. This includes a mental image of your body, which may or may not match how your body looks in reality. Body image changes over our lifetime and can change based on how you feel, physical experience, and the environment. It is strongly influenced by self-esteem and can be greatly affected by the standards society sets as ‘attractive’. Positive body image is characterised by feeling satisfied and happy with how our body looks, feels, and moves, and being comfortable and accepting of it; negative body image is hallmarked by feeling unhappy with your body and wanting to change it. Positive body image is often associated with good self-esteem and a balanced attitude to eating and exercise.
Adolescence is a time of physical changes, and fitting in starts to become more important during this period. As a result, body image concerns can become amplified as teens start to compare their bodies with that of their peers. In Australia, almost one-third of adolescents aged between 15 and 19 years have endorsed body image as a significant concern, and more than half of Australian teenagers have attempted to change their body shape (e.g., via dieting or exercise).
Having a negative body image can directly impact on an individual’s self-esteem and can lead to negative moods. Low self-esteem and a poor body image are also known risk factors for the development of disordered eating and unhealthy weight control methods. Therefore, while it is normal to be conscious of body image, excessive focus can unfortunately lead to poor mental health outcomes.
If you start to notice your child showing any of the following signs, speak to them about your concerns and consider talking to a trained health professional:
- Using negative and critical terms to describe themselves of their body (e.g., ugly, fat)
- Avoidance of social activities because of the way they look
- Spending excessive amounts of time in front of the mirror
- Taking excessive amounts of “selfies” or pictures of themselves to check how they look and to look for imperfections or changes
- Frequent comparisons of their bodies with that of others (e.g. friends, celebrities)
- Obsessing about specific parts of their body
- Skipping meals or limiting food consumption
- Expressions of feelings of guilt after eating
- Engaging in excessive amounts of exercise to lose weight
- Feeling embarrassed about how they look
- Excessive concern with how they are dressed
- Excessive make up use
Treatment for Body Image Concerns
Concerns about body image issues can be treated through psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective at addressing such concerns by helping individuals develop a more realistic and positive perception of their bodies by helping them to identify and change the thoughts and behaviours responsible for maintaining a negative body image. Other forms of therapy include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which attempts to help individuals overcome body dissatisfaction by teaching them to acknowledge negative thoughts and feelings about the body and develop strategies to shift their focus away from these thoughts so that it does not get in the way of engaging in a meaningful life.