Help Teens Build a Healthy Body Image

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 15, 2022
5 min read

As teens' bodies grow and change, they can feel self-conscious and hyper-aware of every blemish and extra pound. They’re also bombarded with "ideal,” often computer-enhanced, body images that are impossible to measure up to. These messages can convince anyone that they’re too fat, too thin, too short, or too tall.

And the messaging sinks in well before they’re teenagers. About 30% of girls ages 10 to 14 are dieting, according to a study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The good news is that, as a parent, you have more influence than you think to help your teen get through this tough time of life and create a positive self-image, no matter their size or shape.

Between glossy fashion magazines, TV shows, movies, and social media, teenage girls can get the impression that models and celebrities have perfect bodies and flawless skin. Many teenage boys compare themselves to the buff athletes and movie stars they see. They feel dissatisfied if their own bodies don't measure up.

Teens might even risk depression, eating disorders, and other dangerous behaviors in an attempt to achieve what they think is a perfect body.

Boys don’t usually talk about body image issues as much as girls, but that doesn't mean they don't have them. They can struggle with eating disorders, too. But parents and doctors may overlook them, even if they are alert to such problems in girls.

Knowing the warning signs of an unhealthy body image in children can help parents identify problems early. What to watch for:

  • Signals that a girl views themselves only in terms of their physical appearance
  • The language your daughter uses to describe themselves and their physical development and attractiveness
  • Dieting too much
  • Frequent comments about the weight of other girls
  • Worries about sexual attractiveness
  • Depression and low self-esteem

 If you think your teen may be struggling with low self-esteem, what can you do? Try these simple steps to start taking action.

1. Be a good role model. Your teen does notice.

Your teen is closely watching your lifestyle, eating habits, and attitudes, even if they seem to cringe every time you speak. Pay attention to the example you are setting, and make changes if you don't like what you see. You can start an exercise program, eat healthier, or turn off the TV and get moving instead.

Remember, your child will also model your attitudes about your body. So if you're constantly criticizing your hip size or thinning hair, they will learn to focus on their flaws instead of their good qualities.

Watch the comments you make about other people’s bodies, and avoid stereotypes, prejudices, and words like ugly and fat.

2. Be positive.

Never make critical remarks about your teen's body. If they have a weight problem, you can be sure they're aware of it. Your comments will only make them feel more discouraged and could make the problem worse.

Instead, compliment your teen. Tell them what a pretty smile they have, or how that shirt makes their eyes shine. When you give positive feedback, you are building a healthy body image. Encourage other healthy habits, like good personal hygiene and posture, healthy sleep habits, and stress relief. When your teen is sitting on the couch, suggest you go out for a walk or run together or head to the gym.

If you feel you need more help, talk to your teen's school counselor or their doctor and work together to come up with a nutrition and exercise plan.

3. Teach your teen about media.

Help your daughter or son learn to be skeptical about what they see in magazines, on screen, and on the web. Make sure your teen understands the airbrushing, photo edits, stylists, personal trainers, cosmetic surgery, and other tricks that fuel the beauty industry and celebrity culture.

4. Put other qualities over looks.

Support your teen’s talents and skills that have nothing to do with how they look -- like music, sports, arts, and volunteer activities. Show an interest in their passions and pursuits. Praise the good things you love about them, like how they can make you laugh, their focus on schoolwork, or the way they look out for their younger siblings. Focus on health over looks whenever you can.

5. Make good health a family affair.

Your entire family will be healthier if you keep junk food out of the house, cook nutritious meals instead of hitting the drive-thru, and get active. But you don't have to do it all at once to make a difference. Just one small change can start building your and your teen's confidence and help you work toward bigger goals. If other family members share in these new behaviors, it will make your teen feel less isolated, too.

Start a nightly family dinner ritual if you don't have one already. Then, instead of turning on the TV, suggest a family walk. You could also offer to join a gym and go with your teen. It's OK to start out slowly, maybe being more active once a week, and then walk or workout more often over time. If you make a healthy lifestyle part of your family culture, your child will build good habits to last a lifetime.

If you notice major changes in your teen's weight or eating habits, talk to their doctor. While body image issues can affect anyone, girls are more likely to have negative health outcomes linked to body dissatisfaction, including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Losing lots of weight
  • Denying hunger
  • Exercising too much
  • Saying that they "feel fat"
  • Withdrawing from social activities

Symptoms of bulimia may include:

  • Making excuses to go to the bathroom right after meals
  • Eating huge amounts of food without weight gain
  • Using laxatives or diuretics
  • Withdrawing from social activities

If you notice any of these signs in your children, talk to a pediatrician. Remember, the key is prevention. Taking steps early on to build a healthy body image in children can help prevent the self-esteem issues that may lead to an eating disorder.