Body Image

The bodies of girls and boys are often depicted in stereotypical and sexist ways in the media. Films, videos and advertising feature slim, toned bodies devoid of imperfections. These images are usually touched up, however, using special software, and present an unrealistic or unhealthy body image.

Because they promote only one model of beauty, these images can lead to many psychological, physiological and interpersonal problems for young people. And even if they affect girls and boys differently, the main consequence is basically the same for both: they become dissatisfied with how they look. While girls generally want to slim down, boys tend to focus on achieving increased muscle mass.

To learn more about how the media affects young people’s development, go to the Effects of Hypersexualization page.

Development of a body image

Developing a healthy body image is essential for good physical and mental health. Here are some factors that positively or negatively influence the development of a person’s body image:

  • Family behaviour, for example, a parent who openly criticizes themselves because of their weight in front of their child
  • Judgments about others, particularly making fun of people who may seem overweight
  • Physical features (such as the length of a person’s nose, the size of their breasts or the colour of their skin) that may or may not conform to the standards promoted by the media
  • Psychological characteristics, such as a person’s capacity for learning or their social skills and personality, because self-confidence protects a person against mockery and insults

Perception of body image according to age

From the age of three, children are aware of their bodies and those of others and have already assimilated the popular belief that a “thin person” is more beautiful than a “fat person.” Studies have shown that young children prefer games and toys that feature thin people.

By the age of four, girls have a desire to be thinner and may have already identified a part of their body that they wish to change.

This attitude toward the body tends to increase with age. In Québec, 45% of nine-year-olds are dissatisfied with their overall body shape. One third of nine-year-old girls have already attempted to lose weight (ISQ, 2002).

In adolescence, a time when young people are busy constructing their identity, their bodies are changing in many ways. Between the ages of 12 and 18, they are vulnerable to social pressure and media images. Indeed, it becomes more difficult for them to be comfortable with their bodies since they want them to conform to the prevailing beauty standards, as a way of gaining acceptance.

Although most secondary school students are of normal or below-normal weight, over half of them are dissatisfied with their physical appearance. As a result, young people tend to adopt unhealthy habits, such as:

  • buying beauty products or weight-loss products. The latter are not risk-free, since the promotion and marketing of these products are not regulated by law.
  • developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders constitute the third most widespread chronic illness among teenage girls in Québec and are also increasing among boys.
  • working out excessively just to build muscle mass. This dependency, known as bigorexia, can have consequences for the locomotor, hormonal and cardiorespiratory systems, as well as for mental health.
  • consuming anabolic steroids and other drugs. Most boys who try to lose weight or manage their body image consume products that can be harmful to their health.

Girls’ repeated exposure to images of thin women with perfect skin lowers their self-esteem, leads to bad eating habits and puts them at risk for depression.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the normal body-mass index (BMI) among adults (regardless of age) falls between 18.5 and 24.99, whereas the BMI recommended for fashion models ranges from 16.22 to 18.31.

Peer pressure

We generally attribute great importance to our physical appearance and to that of our children, without always being aware that we are doing so. But girls are the ones most often subjected to this kind of scrutiny; they are told, for example, that they are beautiful, and have to listen to comments on their clothes and hair.

Various studies have shown that girls get more negative comments about their weight, compared with boys. For example, according to a study carried out in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean (PDF 649 Kb) (available in French only), 38% of teenage girls say they have received negative comments about their weight from those around them (parents, brothers and sisters, friends, etc.). A negative body image is obviously more common among these adolescents than it is among those who have not been subjected to such remarks.

As a result, girls become very concerned about their appearance and devote significant time to it, to the detriment of other constructive activities. Because of the media, which conveys the message that girls must be seductive and should define themselves only in terms of how others see them, girls have a tendency to stress appearance over well-being.

Boys, too, are influenced by the media, which pushes them to adhere to the male model of beauty. It seems, however, that most boys are less affected by self-esteem issues. In fact, after puberty they are no longer affected by these issues and even enjoy an increase in self-esteem, compared with girls of the same age, whose self-esteem declines. 

Even making a positive comment about a person’s weight loss can convey the false idea that slimming down is a laudable goal.

The term “fatphobia” has been around for some time already: it refers to discrimination against people who are fat, overweight or obese. For example, to be fatphobic is to think that overweight people are overweight because they are lazy.

It should be said that physical appearance is a common cause of bullying among adolescents. People who are overweight, or who are different physically, are often exposed to criticism and mockery on the part of their classmates. It goes without saying that young people who are bullied are at more risk of developing unhealthy eating habits.

Tips for fostering a healthy body image

As an adult, you play a key role in children’s construction of a healthy body image. You are a role model for them, and the comments you make and the activities you offer them have a direct influence on the amount and kind of attention they devote to their physical appearance. Explaining to children that each person must take care of their body and lead a healthy lifestyle in order to be healthy is much more useful than showing them how to take care of their appearance.

Here is some practical advice to help children develop a positive and healthy body image:

  • Increase sensory input (rocking, cuddling, caressing) to teach children, from an early age, that the body can be a source of pleasure and comfort.
  • Encourage children to pay attention to physical sensations (hunger, feeling of fullness after eating, fatigue).
  • Avoid comments about your own body and weight and about “foods one shouldn’t eat” (foods that “make you fat”).
  • Plan regular family mealtimes to help children develop a healthy relationship with food.
  • Do not force children to eat if they do not feel like it. Do not deprive them of certain foods or refuse them a second serving if they are still hungry.
  • Do not use food as a reward for good behaviour.
  • Do not talk about diets, weight-loss programs, etc.
  • Show children role models who are comfortable with who they are, regardless of weight or shape.
  • Give children ample opportunities to play outside and take part in active games.
  • Encourage children to participate in activities like soccer, dance and the martial arts so that they can improve their physical abilities and feel competent.
  • When you give children a compliment, you can obviously compliment them on how they look, to help them to like themselves the way they are. But make sure that you also praise other aspects, such as their personality.
  • Teach respect and do not tolerate mockery or taunting, especially if it relates to physical appearance. Teach your child how to respond to taunts and talk to them about the consequences of bullying.
  • Teach children to be critical of manipulated or doctored images (e.g. Photoshop).
  • Before children reach adolescence, talk with them about the changes their bodies will undergo at puberty. Also discuss genetics and different types of body shape.