Solutions:  How to talk to young people about body image

Nic Ponsford provides some useful strategies to increase young people’s body confidence and empower them to be their authentic selves

Nic Ponsford provides some useful strategies to increase young people’s body confidence and empower them to be their authentic selves

3 Oct 2023, 5:00

Body image continues to be a prominent and complex issue, particularly among young people. The increasing prevalence of social media, advertising and celebrity culture has magnified unrealistic beauty standards and societal pressures, significantly impacting how individuals perceive their own bodies.

This phenomenon has mental health implications, and its integration into the core PSHE (Personal, Social, Health, and Economic) curriculum is good news in that regard. But these conversations are not limited to the PSHE classroom, and every adult must be equipped to deal with them frankly and sensitively.

Understanding media influence

In today’s digital age, media platforms, especially social media, wield significant and constant power in shaping young people’s perceptions. They are exposed daily to an abundance of carefully mediated, constructed and often heavily edited images which perpetuate unattainable beauty ideals. These cause body dissatisfaction, comparison, and low self-esteem.

To counter this influence, it’s essential for schools to equip students with critical media literacy skills. Far from being ‘Mickey Mouse’ topics, these foster important critical skills for recognising the pervasive presence of digitally altered images and developing a more discerning eye.

Real-life examples like Kate Winslet’s public stance against photoshopped images and the impact of social media as portrayed in her heart-wrenching and BAFTA award-winning ‘I am Ruth’ makes for an excellent provocation for these conversations.  

Whatever the stimulus, the aim is to support young people to develop a healthier perspective on their bodies, free from pressure to conform.

Diversity and inclusion

Promoting diversity and inclusion also plays a fundamental role in nurturing a positive body image culture. Each of us has a unique mix of body type, ethnicity, ability and gender identity. It’s crucial to recognise and celebrate this diversity, ensuring all students feel valued for who they are.

Embracing diversity goes beyond mere tolerance; it involves actively celebrating individuality and appreciating beauty in all its forms. Thinking about how ‘ideals’ in body image are constructed and change over time can help them to better understand this. The Barbie movie is a topical example of the toy has had to be adapted to better reflect our diversity and take responsibility for the impact of its culturally defining role model.

Breaking down biological barriers in body image discussions is equally important here. Highlighting research showing no significant biological differences in body image until adolescence can encourage the promotion of co-ed sports and physical activities, fostering inclusivity and dismantling unnecessary barriers, for example by organising students by height rather than sex/ gender, promoting mixed competitions on sports days and mixed teams in lesson times. 

Physical health and the role of experts

Addressing body image must also involve discussions on physical and mental health within sports curricula. To educate students about body dysmorphia, first, we need to illustrate what positive body image looks like. This should be personalised to support SEND students with their needs and self-image, and their sense of belonging and self-worth. Role models like Poorna Bell and Tokito Odaare an excellent addition to stereotyped ‘icons’ and celebrities.

Meanwhile, physical activity itself plays an important part in health and wellbeing and can promote a comprehensive understanding of body image. However, before entering into discussions about body image or practically incorporating strategies, schools should consider enlisting the support of experts like nutritionists and mental health professionals to create a safe and supportive environment and mitigate any potential negative effects.

Addressing complexities

Ultimately, promoting positive body image among young individuals is a multifaceted endeavour that demands a comprehensive approach.

Engaging families as partners in these conversations is vital. Young people can model and mirror the behaviours and attitudes of the grown-ups around them. Therefore, helping families with physical and mental health when it comes to perceptions of body image can be a solution in itself. Providing helpful resources empowers parents to play a positive role in promoting a healthy self-image.

Indeed, addressing body image with young people is a collective effort involving teachers and parents, but also trust leaders, governors and the broader community. Most important of all, it must be led by young people themselves. Because ultimately, they know best what barriers stand between them and being their authentic, unique selves.

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