Building Better Body Images

Parents can help kids feel better about themselves.

Let’s face it. We’ve all become obsessed about the way we look, thanks largely to the pervasive influence of the media. But nowhere is this obsession more disturbing than when we see it in our kids.

And the sad reality is that many children and teenagers in Canada feel unhappy about how they look. One survey by Health Canada found that nearly half of 15-year-old girls in Canada thought they needed to lose weight. “The fear of being fat is so overwhelming that young girls have indicated in surveys that they are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents,” according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (

It’s not just body weight that kids worry about. Kids can despair over their nose, lips, skin colour, complexion or hair colour/texture.
Body image, or how people picture themselves in the mirror or in their minds, can affect self-esteem, eating habits, levels of physical activity, and personal relationships.

Research shows that young people who have negative feelings about their bodies suffer from diminished self-value, lack of confidence and feelings of worthlessness. A poor body image can make kids avoid social situations and sports, and in some cases, develop eating disorders.
And it doesn’t end there. Children who learn to be dissatisfied with their appearance seldom grow out of those negative feelings.

What is perpetuating this fixation with appearance?

  • Images in the media: Half of the 35,000 magazine and TV ads we see by adulthood stress the importance of being attractive. The media’s view of beauty is also very narrow: 20 years ago, the average model weighed 8 per cent less that the average women; today’s model weighs 23 per cent less. 

These media images are very powerful, especially with young, impressionable children.
  • Peer pressure: From a very early age, children place great importance on what their friends think and do. Cliques often share attitudes about body image and use similar weight-loss strategies. Teasing can also affect body image. A recent survey in British Columbia of kids ages 6 to 12 found that one-third of boys and girls had been teased about their looks by school mates and that the teasing increased with each grade. For girls, teasing about their bodies rose 24% between grades 4 and 7.
  • All in the family: It’s not just external influences that can damage your child’s body image. Often, innocent comments, like “do you really think you need that slice of cake?” from parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles can affect a child just as much. Remember, your opinion matters and if your child thinks he is disappointing you in any way, he may become preoccupied with trying to change to meet your expectations.

How to help

Resisting all this pressure is hard for kids. Here are some ways that parents and caregivers can help kids develop a positive body image:

  • Avoid making negative remarks about your own weight and physical attributes. When you nitpick your own perceived flaws, you can pass this trait on to your child.
  • Be aware of the “beauty myth” portrayed in the media and how it can influence your child. Talk about the media images, and encourage your child to challenge what she sees – who really looks like that? Is being that thin healthy? Do you need to look like that to wear a certain brand?
  • Ensure your child understands that weight gain and changes in body shape are a normal part of adolescence. Reassure her that it is common to feel awkward at this stage of development.
  • Avoid any praise that is associated with appearance. Instead, compliment your child on his accomplishments, talents, abilities and beliefs. Positive reinforcement helps build positive self-esteem!
  • Get involved by becoming a member of the Northumberland Body Image Coalition. The coalition is a group of health professionals, educators, community members, parents, and youth that promotes and encourages positive body image in Northumberland County.  1-866-888-4577,


Dads and Daughters

Fathers may not realize it, but they have a tremendous influence on how their daughters feel about themselves.
That makes it important to say and do the right thing. For instance:


  • Refrain from making negative comments about your daughter’s appearance.
  • Be careful not to objectify women in any way, as this can leave your daughter with the impression that women are just meant to be pretty.
  • Emphasize that with a little hard work, your daughter can be anything and do anything she wants.

Visit for more information on how to have a positive relationship with your daughter.

Author: Kimberly Leadbeater

Kimberly Leadbeater is a registered dietitian with the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit.

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