- Signs of a teen having poor body image include low self-esteem, wearing baggy clothes, and staring in the mirror for long periods.
- Teens exploring gender identity may find adolescence particularly challenging as their body changes.
- The biggest way to support a teen in their body image journey is to understand their perspective and allow for open communication.
Adolescence is a crucial time in the development of a teen's body image. During adolescence, teens' bodies go through intense and drastic changes, which can be challenging to adapt to and accept. If you are noticing your teen developing a more critical view of themselves, it may be time to begin to look into ways to explore and potentially change the dialogue around self-perception, beauty, and attractiveness in your house.
What Is Body Image?
Body image is a dynamic concept that is constantly changing and evolving throughout your life as your body moves through physical and emotional changes. Body image is a term that concerns your perception of your body and the bodies of others. Our body image is informed by what traits we interpret to be most physically attractive and how this interpretation of attractiveness relates to our own body shape and size (Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2023).
Some Warning Signs of Poor Body Image in Teens
- Openly critical about self and/or parts of their body
- Staring in the mirror for long periods of time
- Wearing baggy clothes to cover the body
- Preoccupation with social media accounts that promote specific beauty standards
- Lowered self-esteem
- A greater concern with how peers perceive them
Adolescence and Body Image
Adolescence is a crucial time in the development of body image because teens’ bodies go through rapid physical changes. These physical changes can alter the perception of their body’s characteristics (Toselli et al., 2023).
Please note: Teens who are questioning or exploring their gender identity may find adolescence particularly challenging as their body’s changes may not align with how they identify. For these teens, particular care should be taken when exploring the topic of body image. Body image should be seen as not just a perception of attractiveness or unattractiveness but also an alignment or misalignment with who they feel to be (Muratore et al., 2022).
There can be a good deal of overlap between body image and gender dysphoria among gender-expansive individuals, which can lead to increased body dissatisfaction and disordered eating patterns. It is important to explore body image among these individuals from both a resonance with identity and an informed perception of what is or is not attractive.
A key step in promoting positive body image among teens is acceptance and appropriate adaptation by processing the physical changes they are experiencing. If acceptance, adaptation, and exploration of the changes don’t happen, this puts adolescents at risk for a poor or even distorted image of their bodies (Toselli et al., 2023).
What Informs Body Image?
Our perception of what is physically attractive goes on to inform the evaluation of our own body’s characteristics. But, how do we decide what we perceive to be physically attractive in the first place? Attractiveness is a learned concept largely informed by the messages we receive from our loved ones, the images we see in the media, and comparing ourselves with those around us who are seen as attractive or unattractive (Krayer, Ingledew, & Iphofen, 2008).
Due to our society’s overemphasis on the thin ideal, commonly the images and messages we receive from media and loved ones promote a narrow and problematic interpretation of attractiveness. By beginning to expand the media outlets you and your teen consume to incorporate people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and identities and altering your language around appearance to deemphasize thinness and promote a more holistic self-image, how attractiveness is determined can begin to change.
What Informs Perception of Attractiveness?
- Societal messages
- Social comparison
Can Body Image Change?
As mentioned above, our body image is dynamic, always changing. Therefore, even if a teen is beginning to struggle with a poorly informed self-perception, change can happen. In the same way, if you are their parent or loved one struggling with a negative perception of yourself, you can begin to take steps to build a more positive and accepting interpretation of your appearance and the appearance of others.
How to Move Toward Change
There are steps that parents can begin to take to shift the dialogue around body image.
- First, parents can begin to explore their own body image. Go through a process of self-reflection and dive into what is informing the perception of your own body.
- After you have an idea of where you are coming from, you can begin to educate yourself on beauty culture, diet culture, and the toxicity that surrounds our current societal standards.
- Third, you can begin to take action steps to change. Begin to challenge your own dialogue around beauty, self-image, and self-perception. Use neutral language when talking about your body and other bodies. Move away from the over-emphasis on appearance, and begin to explore other aspects that inform someone's perception of themselves—hobbies, personality traits, talents, etc.
- Lastly, start having conversations with your teen. Begin to build a vocabulary of supportive language around the topic. Come from a place of validation, support, and patience. The next section will give you some ideas about how to begin talking about these hard topics.
How to Talk to Your Teen About Body Image
Come from a place of validation and support. The biggest way that you can support your teen in their body image journey is by trying to understand where they are coming from and create a space where open communication can exist. And, always be patient. Change is a process, and your teen is on their own journey that may not follow the trajectory of change you are searching for.
One of the tools I give parents in my own practice is the validation script created by the founders of emotion-focused family therapy. This is a great way to structure difficult conversations and find words, even when you may feel at a loss.
A. Krayer, D. K. Ingledew, R. Iphofen, Social comparison and body image in adolescence: a grounded theory approach, Health Education Research, Volume 23, Issue 5, October 2008, Pages 892–903, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cym07
Muratore, Laura A., et al. "Disordered Eating and Body Dissatisfaction in Transgender and Gender-Expansive Adults: An Evaluation and Integration of the Gender Minority Stress and Resilience and Tripartite Influence Models." Behavior Therapy, vol. 53, no. 5, Sept. 2022, pp. 869-86, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2022.02.006
Toselli, S., Zaccagni, L., Rinaldo, N., Mauro, M., Grigoletto, A., Maietta Latessa, P., & Marini, S. (2023). Body Image Perception in High School Students: The Relationship with Gender, Weight Status, and Physical Activity. Children, 10(1), 137. https://doi.org/10.3390/children10010137
Zimmer-Gembeck, Melanie J., et al. "Adolescents’ online appearance preoccupation: A 5-year longitudinal study of the influence of peers, parents, beliefs, and disordered eating." Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 140, Mar. 2023, pp. 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2022.107569.