understanding body image - for friends and family

Body image is the way a person thinks and feels about their body and how they believe others view them.

Adolescence is a time of growth and development and can cause worries for lots of young people. Because of this rapid physical change and growth, it's normal for young people's body weight to go up and down during this time. It's also very easy to be self-critical if they're only judging themselves on their physical appearance.

What is body image?

Body image is the way a person thinks and feels about their body and how they believe others view them. It can be positive or negative.

Having good self esteem encourages a positive body image and can in turn have a positive effect on a young person's mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Poor body image can be caused by a range of different factors including being bullied or teased during childhood or adolescence about their appearance or being heavily influenced by the media's idealised portrayal and fixation with being thin. Poor body image can lead to depression, anxiety, alcohol and other drug abuse, and eating disorders.

Body image and eating disorders

A person with an eating disorder engages in unhealthy patterns of eating and/or exercising  because of their beliefs about food, weight and their body image. Body image or eating concerns become a problem when they begin to affect a young person's physical or mental health, or how they cope in their daily life. Eating disorders can cause significant physical health complications and so they can be life-threatening.

Warning signs that a young person might have body image issues

A young person might:

  • Have disordered eating habits (e.g. excessive dieting, binge eating)

  • Be preoccupied with weight and exercise (e.g. obsessively weighing themselves, calorie counting)

  • Be continually self-critical about their appearance (e.g. body size)

  • Constantly compare their body to others Helping a young person with body image issues

You can help a young person by encouraging them to:

  • Focus on themselves as a person, not just on how they look

  • Aim to get healthier rather than lose weight

  • Focus on the things they like about their body

  • Stop being critical about others' appearance

  • Engage in positive self talk and replace negative thoughts with more realistic ones

Professional help is available from general practitioners (GPs), school counsellors, psychologists and specialist mental health workers. Treatment might include learning skills to help understand and counteract peer/social pressures and ways to address any eating patterns that are not helpful. Prevention and early treatment is important as body dissatisfaction causes distress, can contribute to low self-esteem and depression, and can be a risk factor for developing clinical eating disorders. 

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