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‘Body image’ is the term used to describe thoughts and perceptions about our body or parts of our body and the associated feelings. Body image can affect our wellbeing in both positive and negative ways, but research has shown that body image dissatisfaction is a common experience of children and young people. Research has found that attitudes around appearance and body shape and size start to develop as young as 3 or 4 years old, and concerns develop throughout childhood and adolescence. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 35% of young people aged 13-19 said they worried about their body image ‘often’ or ‘always’. Similarly, the pupil survey carried out in a sample of Devon pupils in 2021 found 18% of boys and 30% of girls in primary school worried about the way they look, rising to 20% of secondary age boys and 56% of secondary age girls.  

Body image can relate to a number of different appearance concerns, such as body shape or size, height, skin colour and texture, facial features, and physical disabilities or differences amongst others, and dissatisfaction can arise when children and young people feel as though they do meet certain standards, feel different, or not ‘good enough’, and this can negatively impact on wellbeing.  

Our body image influenced by many different factors, which can include things such as the values and behaviours of parents, friends, and peers; experience of appearance-related bullying; social media promoting of certain appearance ideals; appearance ideals in film, TV, and magazines; wider social and cultural values of what is attractive or healthy; exposure to advertisement about improving appearance.  

Having poor body image can cause a number of negative impacts to wellbeing, including:   

  • Low confidence  
  • Low self-esteem  
  • Increased anxiety  
  • Depression or low mood  
  • Critical internal voice  
  • Social isolation and withdrawal  
  • Disengagement from school  
  • Disordered eating behaviours 
  • Self-harming behaviour 

It is relatively normal for children and young people to compare themselves to others as they get older, particularly around puberty, and as they become more aware of societal values and pressure to look a certain way. Sometimes however this may go beyond usual comparison, and there are some signs to spot that may indicate a child or young person may be struggling with their body image: 

  • Feeling overly worried about appearance 
  • Becoming self-conscious and covering up  
  • Lack of engagement in PE due to anxiety around getting changed  
  • Rigid thinking about good and bad appearance  
  • Disordered eating behaviours including black and white views on food and increased control 
  • Changes in school or social engagement and participation  
  • Changes in mood  

 

 It can be challenging to address body image dissatisfaction as there are so many contributing factors which are difficult to escape from. However, there are a number of things that you can do in school to create a more positive environment that celebrates body diversity and takes the focus of off appearance.  

  • Utilise lessons in PSHE to explore the pros and cons of social media, and teach digital literacy to aid understanding of when images have been edited, re-touched, or when products are being marketed  
  • Explore lessons on health through focusing on what health may feel like rather than associating it with a particular look 
  • Focus lessons on food and nutrition around health and enjoyment, and avoid good vs. bad language around food and health 
  • Focus lessons on PE around the psychological benefits of movement and enjoyment of being active rather than focusing on appearance or ability  
  • Reinforce positive body image messaging by including materials around school that showcase diversity in terms of body size, shape, height, skin colour, abilities, disabilities etc.  
  • Support pupils to value and celebrate positive attributes and skills that they have that are not related to their appearance 
  • Engage in staff CPD on body image to understand the topic and recognise early signs a pupil may be struggling  
  • Encourage staff to be mindful of language that is used around body size, shape, and appearance with each other and with pupils, avoiding reinforcement of stereotypes and negative views  
  • Provide information to parents to support understanding around body image  
  • Ensure effective policies and practices are in place that demonstrate no tolerance of appearance-related teasing or bullying or body shaming, and support children and young people who experience bullying  
  • Be mindful of how some experiences in school may impact some pupils and take steps to reinforce positive body image messaging, for example around the NCMP (in primary school) 
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