Mental Health & Body Image

Adolescence is a period of development that is characterized by change: changes on a psychological, physical, cognitive and emotional level, that leads to a greater concern for the individual’s physical appearance. During this period of a young person’s life, they experience increased awareness and preoccupation with their changing appearance and their perception of their own body develops

The relationship between one’s body image and mental health

The concept of “body image” refers to the way we perceive, think and feel about our bodies. A study by psychologist Fiona Duffy found that the prevalence of body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem is especially high in adolescence. Developing body dissatisfaction, if left unaddressed, can lead to a number of mental health-related disorders such as eating disorders (e.g., anorexia, bulimia, etc, body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, self-harming tendencies). Body image is a key aspect of their mental health and wellbeing. 

Furthermore, body related issues are more common in young people who perceive pressure from their friends, peers, and loved ones to look a certain way, through the use of appearance-focused teasing, criticisms, comments about weight and appearance, etc. 

Having a supportive and encouraging social community, can help to build a young person’s self-esteem, rather than leaving it diminished. 

Given the complexities of body image in our modern-day world with varying internal and external influences, such as social media, mainstream media, and social pressure to conform to ‘ever-changing’ standards, it’s no wonder so many young people are battling with body image concerns and low self-esteem. 

How You Can Help As A Guardian

If you find yourself reading this article, you probably have a young person in your life whose wellbeing is a concern to you. They may not always directly tell you if they are struggling with their body image, so here are some indicators to look out for:

  1. Expressions of thoughts and feelings about not liking their body or wanting to change their appearance. 
  2. An obsessive preoccupation about food, their weight or body shape. 
  3. Feelings of anxiety, shame or irritability when talking about food. 
  4. Significant changes in appetite and eating habits. 
  5. Extreme sensitivity to comments about physical appearance. 
  6. Not wanting to do activities or wanting to leave the house because of their appearance. 
  7. Self-harming behaviours. 

Ways To Intervene 

Reversing the damage from a negative body image does take time, patience and intentional effort – but it IS possible. If you suspect that your child is struggling with their body image, here are some suggestions and ways you can intervene:

Talk about body image

Open a gentle dialogue with your teen about behaviours you may have noticed that are concerning to you. Your teen sometimes needs help to understand the messages he/she is constantly receiving about their body, and by actively listening to their concerns and responding with empathy and non-judgment, it can be helpful. 

Use positive self-talk and being a role model

The language you use and the way you talk about your own and other physical appearance matters. Your teen/ young adult is listening and observing your views and soaking them in. Be mindful of the language you use and the behaviours you demonstrate about yourself and your self-perception. 

Use positive language

Rather than only talking about the physical attributes of your child, compliment them on their character. Furthermore, avoid teasing about weight or appearance. Teasing may start off as playful commentary but it’s effects can be just as harmful as bullying on a teen struggling with body-image related issues.

Establish healthy eating habits and promote physical activity

Teach your teen how to eat a healthy and balanced diet and about the importance of physical activity in a healthy manner. Offer your feedback in a gentle and empathetic manner. It may be useful to practice healthy eating and physical activity as a family unit so that they feel supported in their journey towards health.

Seek professional help

Discuss the option of seeking professional support with your teenager/ young adult, where a therapist can help to address faulty beliefs, they may have about themselves (using a treatment method called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). And equip them with the tools needed to create a positive body image. 

In Conclusion 

Reframing your teen/ young adult’s self-perception is a process that requires patience, compassion and grace. The best way to help them navigate through the challenges they may be facing with regards to their self-image is to help them feel safe to share their experiences with you, knowing that they will be met with love and compassion. 

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