9 ways to help teens with body image issues

According to recent statistics, over 60% of girls and young women in the UK have low self-esteem, with just 39% expressing that are confident about their bodies. We share nine simple ways you can help support teens with body image issues.

Young Woman Laying in Bed

If we asked you to name three things you would change about your body if you could, chance are, you could name them quickly without much thought. What if we asked you to name three things you love about how you look? For many of us, that can feel more challenging.

We all have periods where we aren’t happy about our bodies. While low body and low self-esteem aren’t mental health problems in themselves, they can negatively affect our mental health and other areas of our lives. The more positive we feel about ourselves, the better our outlook on life; the more resilient we are, the more ready we feel to handle life’s unexpected ups and downs.

Building our emotional resilience can be key to helping us handle our body image issues, as well as helping to support those we care about who may be struggling.

How can I help my teen feel confident in their body?

1. Challenge your own thinking – practising what we preach and working on our own body image issues can be tough, but can have a huge impact. According to one survey, we may be passing on our own insecurities to those closest to us. Of those who reported being unhappy with their body shape, 90% said their own mother had an ‘insecure body image’.

Children and teens look at their closest friends and family to guide their own relationships with their bodies. How we talk about ourselves, how we look, our relationship with food, diet culture and our bodies, as well as how we speak about other women in the news and on social media can have a huge impact on how young people perceive themselves.

2. Acknowledge your own insecurities and struggles – being open and honest about how we feel about our bodies with ourselves is tough enough, let alone with others. Being open and honest about our own insecurities can help young people feel more able to speak up, seek reassurance, and ask for help.

When you are struggling with low body confidence, it can feel isolating. You may feel like you are the only one experiencing these kinds of feelings, or may think everyone else knows what they’re doing. Sharing your insecurities can help open up a dialogue, starting open, honest conversations, and helping teens to feel less daunted when talking about their own experiences.

3. Share the power of body neutrality and body positivity – going from having a negative body image to body positivity can feel like a big jump for those who may struggle with body image. Body neutrality can offer a safe space for those who struggle with self-love or seeing their bodies in a positive light.

Whilst body positivity originally aimed to give a voice to marginalised bodies (fat, queer, disabled), it has become more broadly confused with general self-love and body confidence over the years, making many feel pushed out of the community that was originally designed to support them.

Body neutrality can help steer individuals away from self-hate without the pressure of having to love their bodies, instead working towards getting to a place where they can respect themselves without giving too much energy to positive or negative thoughts around their body.  

4. Remember teenage boys can have body image issues too – the media widely focuses on the struggles young women have with how they look. Many assume that body image issues and eating disorders only affect the stereotypical young, thin, white women and girls, when actually they can affect people of all backgrounds, ages, races, and genders.

Young men may feel the pressure to be strong, tall, chivalrous but not overbearing. To embrace equality but still fulfil traditional expectations of athleticism, strength, not showing their emotions, all while aiming to be high-earners who can support a family without encroaching on their partner’s independence or career.

The Australian Psychological Society revealed male body image dissatisfaction has tripled over the past 25 years, with 45% of men now feeling dissatisfied with how they look. Many feel there is a pressure to display strength, security, and masculinity through their physical appearance, putting pressure on young men who do not fit this traditional mould.

It’s important to talk about mental health, well-being, and gender stereotypes with young men just as much as young women, as these can all impact their perception of what they ‘should’ look like. Explain that they shouldn’t feel pressured to aim for a certain physical appearance. Instead, aiming for a healthy, balanced lifestyle is key to avoiding issues such as exercise addiction. Introducing teens to body neutrality can be a good first step towards helping them feel comfortable.

5. Talk about social media – having a conversation around social media and how it makes them feel can have a big impact. Studies have shown that social media may impact how young women see their bodies, while further studies around social media and mental health have been much debated.

While some studies have suggested social media may not be affecting us as negatively as first thought, research from the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, looked into the effects of social media on how young women see their own body image. Looking at women aged 18-27, their findings suggested that social media engagement with attractive friends and, classmates and colleagues can increase negative body image. Young women felt more dissatisfied with their bodies and own appearance after looking at social media.

While government guidelines around social media usage and recommended scrolling time for children and teens are on their way, it’s worth opening up the conversation now. Having an open, honest, frank discussion about social media and the potential impact it can have can help uncover any feelings of negativity (or positivity) it may be having on their well-being.

Being a good role model can also be a great way to practice what you preach and back up your conversation. If you’re concerned about your child or teen’s social media use, discover simple ways you can help them stay safer online.

6. Encourage role models of all shapes and sizes – when Tess Holiday became Cosmo’s first plus-size cover girl, the backlash was huge. At a UK size 24, Tess highlighted everything fat women are often afraid to be, sharing her confidence and vulnerabilities equally. By seeing more bodies of different shapes, sizes, and kinds of beauty, we can help show young people that there isn’t a singular ideal of what we should all want to look like. There is no one ‘perfect’ body.

Tess herself summed it up best: “If I saw a body like mine on this magazine [Cosmopolitan] when I was a young girl, it would have changed my life”.

As writer Laura Capon explained, “When I saw that cover with Tess…I thought she looked so incredibly beautiful. I saw her tattoos, her thick thighs, her boobs, and I could have cried, because if I could see her beauty, maybe there was beauty in my body too.” By showing teens a wider range of bodies, we can help them to accept and grow to love themselves no matter what shape, size, or imperfections they may worry they have.

Many of the images we see in magazines and across various media platforms can give us a skewed view of what we should aspire to look like. While we may understand that many of these women have been retouched again and again, for young people, it can be harder to realise that the images they are shown aren’t attainable. Not even the women within these photos look like that. By instead highlighting different types of beauty, we can help young people learn to recognise and overcome their own insecurities.

7. Keep an eye out for body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – while rare, BDD can affect people of any age, at any time. Affecting an estimated 1% of the UK, it typically starts during puberty when young people are the most sensitive about the way they look.

Signs to keep an eye out for can include spending significant periods of time looking at themselves in mirrors or avoiding them altogether, altering their appearance, wearing excessive makeup, or expressing a desire for cosmetic surgery. Other signs can include being anxious around others, comparing their appearance to others, developing obsessive behaviours (such as brushing or styling their hair excessively, trying to cover perceived flaws with makeup), or wearing baggy clothing to disguise their body shape.

Sometimes misinterpreted as individuals being vain, this fear of being judged can prevent some tees from speaking up and seeking help. Without help and support, BDD can lead to other conditions such as depression, self-harm, and substance abuse.

8. Encourage a positive mindset – automatic negative thoughts can be tricky to overcome. Teaching teens to focus on the positives and redirect their thoughts to other skills, characteristics, passions, or abilities can help to counter negative body image.

Remember to be careful to avoid sounding as though you are judging any of their feelings around their body image. While our automatic response may be to deny or counter what is being said if they express a certain negative or harsh view of themselves, we can risk sounding as though we are dismissing their experience and ignoring how they feel.

Instead, encourage them to explore why they feel this way. Identifying specific negative influences and triggers can help them to refocus towards a positive mindset, avoiding or removing negative influences, and discovering new ways to combat these in the future.

9. Focus on health over image – try to bring the emphasis back around to the importance of being healthy and happy, over thin or muscular. Steering conversations towards the importance of nutrition over diet talk, staying physically fit over losing weight, and the ways food can affect and even boost their mood or reduce tiredness can all help.

Encouraging activities such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation can all help young people to feel more in tune with their body and how they are really feeling.

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Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford
Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.
Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford
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