Body Image is a Big Part of Self-Esteem

"I hate my body!" sulks Alyssa, a tall, thin twelve-year old who is starting to show the effects of puberty. Her Mom tries to be supportive, but Alyssa can't stand her hair (too stringy), her knees (too knobby) and her teeth (too big). She also hates the fact that she is taller than all her friends.

One of her friends, Liz, is so sensitive about her body, she refuses to wear a bathing suit and stays home when her friends go to the beach or pool. To hide her "fat," she only wears sweat pants and baggy sweatshirts - clothing that makes her look bigger than she really is.

Like many pre-teens and teens, Alyssa and Liz have negative views of their bodies. Negative body image is not limited to girls; many adolescent boys also don't like their looks and wish they could change parts of their bodies. When kids have extremely negative views of their bodies, their self-esteem suffers, sometimes leading to serious problems like disordered eating, compulsive exercising, steroid abuse and social withdrawal.

Young people experiencing the changes of puberty are particularly susceptible to the influences of the "jock and model" culture that promotes stereotypes of idealized male and female bodies. Images of tall, strong, well-built men and thin, well-proportioned women - all with beautiful hair and perfect, white teeth - dominate advertising, television shows and movies. These images are intended to make people unhappy with their looks so they'll buy beauty and fitness products. Adolescents, who are already self-conscious about their changing bodies, may suffer intense feelings of inferiority because their bodies don't measure up to the idealized images.

These stereotypes are also assimilated into the peer culture where kids may pressure friends to undertake ill-advised or uninformed diets or exercise regimes. Name-calling and criticism from peers can cut deeply into a young person's self-esteem. It hurts kids when their peers call them "fatso" or "shrimpy," or criticize their haircut or wardrobe.

Parents may unwittingly contribute to a child's negative body image when they compare her to another child or make inferences about her weight or appearance. When a parent innocently asks, "Do you think it's a good idea to have another doughnut?" she may be implying that the child is overweight.

What can parents do to help their children develop a more positive attitude about their bodies, which, in turn, will raise their self-esteem?

  • Give children your unconditional love and acceptance. It's the best antidote for low self-esteem.
  • Focus on what children can do with their bodies, rather than what their bodies look like. Even if you compliment a child's appearance, you may be sending the message that how he looks is more important than what he can do.
  • Pull kids up when they put their bodies down. If a child says, "I hate my teeth! They're too big!" you may say,"I love your smile because it means you are having fun and you're happy."
  • Be positive about your own body. If you are obsessed with your appearance, children will learn from your example. A parent, who doesn't want to play with young children because she is dressed up or just put on her makeup, may be unconsciously telling her child that looking nice means more than having fun.
  • Avoid conflicts over food. Trying to control how much and when children eat may teach children not to respect their own biological cues for hunger and satiation. Insisting that children "clean their plates" may backfire if children begin to equate eating with parental approval and love.
  • When helping children maintain a desirable weight or develop athletic prowess, keep the emphasis on good health rather than strictly physical attributes like size and weight. Good health can be achieved without compulsive dieting or exercising.
  • When other people make negative comments about your child, re-state them in positive terms. If an adult says your daughter is a "big girl," respond by saying, "Yes. She's tall and strong just like her Dad."
  • Counteract the stereotypes in the media culture by pointing out individuals who have become successful despite being "short" or "overweight." Actors like Danny DeVito and Rosie O'Donnell, and athletes like Mugsy Bogues or David Wells, don't fit the ideal, but have been very successful.
  • Stay alert for signs of disordered eating or possible steroid use. These are serious problems that require parental, and sometimes professional, intervention.

Source: Tim Jahn, Human Development Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 54


Michelle Leveski
Nutrition Educator II
518-234-4303 x115

Last updated July 10, 2020