Families Are Talking

What Are Body Image and Self-esteem?

Body image is the picture that you have of your physical appearance in your mind. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself as a person. They both include positive and negative feelings and can be influenced by society, cultural background and life experiences. Body image and self-esteem are connected, because the way that you feel about your body can affect the way you feel about yourself as a whole.

As parents and caregivers, your children look to you for guidance and support, and they want to hear what you have to say. Talk with your children about body image and self-esteem, give them age-appropriate positive messages that will help them feel better about themselves. Discuss that every individual is unique, that there are behaviors related to body image that are healthy and unhealthy, and that the ways in which the media portrays body image can be unrealistic in real life. Most importantly, help them celebrate and appreciate the person that they are and all they have to offer.

Sharing Messages with Your Children During “Teachable Moments”

Beginning to talk with your children when they are young will help lay the foundation for them to develop positive body image and self-esteem. If your children are already in their adolescent years and you never had these conversations, realize that it’s never too late to start.

Before talking to your children, it’s helpful to consider the messages you want to share. Perhaps you want to share the following using simple, clear, age-appropriate language.

Messages for Young People Ages Five through Eight:

  • Individual bodies are different sizes, shapes, and colors. Male and female bodies
    are equally special
  • Differences make us unique
  • All bodies are special, including those that are disabled
  • Good health habits, such as eating nutritiously and exercising, can improve the way a person looks and feels
  •  Each person can be proud of the special qualities of his/her body

Messages for Young People Ages Nine through Twelve:

  • A person’s appearance is determined by heredity, environment, and health habits
  • The way a body looks is mainly determined by the genes inherited from parents and grandparents
  • Bodies grow and change during puberty
  • The media portrays “beautiful” people but most people do not fit these images
  • Standards of beauty change over time and differ among cultures
  • The value of a person is not determined by their appearance
  • Eating disorders are one result of poor body image

Messages for Young People Ages Twelve through Fifteen:

  • The size and shape of a person’s body may affect how others feel about and behave toward that person
  • People with physical disabilities have the same feelings, needs and desires as people without disabilities

Messages for Young People Ages Fifteen through Eighteen:

  • Physical appearance is only one factor that attracts one person to another
  • A person who accepts and feels good about his or her body will seem more likeable and attractive to others
  • People are attracted to different physical qualities

Resources and Activities to Help Parents and Caregivers Talk to Young People about Body Image and Self-esteem:

  • Talking about Body Image and Self-esteem, for Ages Five through Eight:
    As young children begin to socialize, they may begin to point out and compare themselves to the similarities and differences they notice between themselves and others. To help build confidence, acceptance, and understanding, share books and information with them to address body image, self-esteem and diversity. The following books are excellent resources to help begin to address these issues with young children.
  • No Mirrors in My Nana’s House, by Ysaye M. Barnwell, tells the story of a young girl who learns about beauty, both in herself and the world, by looking into her grandmother’s eyes. After reading this book together, try talking about the subject matter of the book, how it would feel to never look in to a mirror, and what the child loves about him or herself, and what you love about them as well.
  • It’s Okay to Be Different, by Todd Parr, helps children embrace their individuality. Help them by discussing what makes them special and unique, and how they feel about and treat others that are different from them.

A Creative Project for Parents, Caregivers, and their Tweens, for Ages Nine through Twelve:

  • In an effort to build positive body image and self-esteem, help your child create a self-portrait, allowing them to express how they see themselves in their own eyes, as opposed to exactly what they see in the mirror. Try making a life-size likeness by helping them trace themselves onto newsprint or other large paper and decorate it as they see themselves, using crayons, colored pencils, paint, or all three, as they see fit.
  • To help them discuss their project, ask them what they like best about themselves, different parts of their body they may worry or have fears about, how they think other people view them compared to their own ideas, and how they expect their body or body image may change as they grow older and approach high school. Make sure to reinforce their positive ideas and images, while discussing supportively any negative ideas they may have.

An Activity for Parents, Caregivers, and their Teens to Communicate about Sexuality-related Issues, for Ages Thirteen through Eighteen:

Throughout world history there have been “ideal” body types and clothing trends for both women and men. Spend time together researching how ideas on body image have changed from Ancient Greece and Rome; Elizabethan times; pre-Revolutionary France; to the early, mid, and late 1900’s. Visit your local public library, bookstore, or use the Internet to gather information that you and your teen can use to compare and take notes on different time periods, considering how body image and clothing styles have changed for men and women. Be sure to talk with them about the “ideal” body types during the different periods, different styles of clothing for both men and women, and what they noticed when comparing different time periods to each other. After looking at past trends, look at current magazines and discuss how those body images have changed over time and how new images effect or could effect them and their friends.

For more information, resources and ideas, visitwww.familiesaretalking.org.

Information was adapted from “Families are Talking,” a quarterly newsletter published by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

SIDEBAR:Some TIPS to Help Parents and Caregivers Talk with Their Children about Body Image and Self-esteem

  • Do not wait until your children ask questions
  • Know and practice the messages that you want to share
  • Seek “teachable moments” – daily opportunities that occur when you are with your children that make it easy to share your messages and values
  • Let your children know that you are always open to talking with them about these and other important issues
  • Listen
  • Try to understand your children’s point of view
  • If you don’t know how to answer your children’s questions, offer to find the answers or look up together
  • Provide pamphlets, books, and other age-appropriate and medically accurate materials
  • Find out what your children’s schools are teaching about these topics
  • Stay actively involved in your children’s lives


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here