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 selfesteem 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 selfesteem, 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.

Body Image Inventory

As you think about the messages that you want to share with your children about body image and self-esteem, it’s helpful to
get in touch with your feelings about your body and the messages that you learned growing up. As you answer these questions, make a mental note of any negative thought patterns you may have.

  • What’s the first positive message that you remember receiving about your body? Negative message? How old were you? How have these messages impacted you?
  • What messages do you wish you received about body image and selfesteem as you were growing up?
  • What do you like best about your body?
  • What about your body, if anything, do you compare to an “ideal” that the media portrays? Do you find yourself trying to alter your body to meet this ideal? If so, how?
  • What are your thoughts about dieting, eating, exercising, or having plastic surgery? How do these thoughts influence your behaviors and your own body image? In what ways do you express these thoughts to others?

Think about your answers to the questions, considering the verbal and non-verbal messages about body image and self-esteem that you give your children. Are these the messages that you want to be giving to your kids? If not, what are the messages about body image and self-esteem that you want to share with your kids?

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 with 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.

5–8 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

9–12 Messages for Young People Ages Nine through 12:

  • 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 portray “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

12–15 Messages for Young People Ages 12 through 15:

  • The size and shape of the penis or breasts does not affect reproductive ability or ability to be a sexual partner
  • 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

15–18 Messages for Young People Ages 15 through 18:

  • 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