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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Promoting a Healthy Body Image

This edition of Topic in Brief includes the following sections:


This edition of ReCAPP focuses on body image and how adolescents are affected by it. Educators and other adults should be aware of body image and its effects on today's youth. With knowledge and understanding, we can attempt to prevent the psychological damage associated with a poor body image and help promote positive and healthy body images in the lives we touch.


Body Image is defined as the mental representation of your physical self at any given point in time. Body image refers to how you see yourself, how you feel others perceive you, and what you believe about your physical appearance. Body image is influenced more by self-esteem than by how physically attractive you are to others. It is how YOU feel about and in your body.


An Overview of the Issues

Concerns about body image and appearance are pervasive among today's teens. According to one report, which surveyed girls aged 11-17 about growing up in today's society, 19% described concerns about image and appearance as the "most important struggle" facing girls. Additionally, 25% of participants "recalled being ridiculed for their weight, looks, body type, or personal style and appearance." (American Association of University Women, 1999)

Our body image is directly related to our self-esteem. The more negative our perception of our bodies, the more negative we feel about ourselves. Our beliefs about our bodies also influence our behavior, especially in relationship to others. Our ability to make healthy decisions and negotiate intimacy is highly dependent on our body image. This is especially true for adolescents. For example, a teenager with a poor body image and low self-esteem may allow unwanted sexual attention if it makes her feel appealing to someone, even if that individual is not appealing to her. On the other hand, a teenager with more self-confidence and a healthy body image may be more protective of her feelings and more selective when choosing potential partners.

Author and registered dietitian Cindy Maynard believes that "body image dissatisfaction is so epidemic in our society that it's almost considered normal." She says that children in "third grade are concerned about their weight. But the most vulnerable are teens. This is the age we are most impressionable and start to develop self-confidence and self-perception … about half of female teens think they're too fat and almost 50% are dieting. There is a lot of pressure to succeed and fit in. One of the ways to fit in is to have 'the perfect body.'" (Maynard, Body Image, 1998)

On the other hand, teens who enjoy a healthy body image tend to feel more positive, confident and self-caring. A healthy body image is necessary for adolescents to take care of their bodies, develop confidence in their physical abilities, and generally feel comfortable with who they are. (Maynard, Body Image, 1998)


What Educators Can Do

Educators and other adults play an important role in helping youth develop and maintain a healthy body image during their teens, when they tend to be emotionally vulnerable.

One easy thing educators should do is to take a "body-sensitive inventory." Teachers and health educators can assess their physical surroundings (e.g. bulletin boards, posters, magazines) for the kinds of images represented in their immediate environment. If accurate and realistic, these images include bodies of different sizes and shapes, skin of various shades, teeth, hair, and complexions that are not "magazine ad perfect."

A body-sensitive inventory often points to the source of the problem; most teens believe that "fitting in" means looking like the idealized types that surround us in the media. For more information and instruction on conducting a "body-sensitive inventory," see this edition's Educator Skill entitled "Look Around! Tips for creating a body positive learning environment.

Since media images are a reflection of a larger, societal issue, we may wonder what we, as individuals, can do to counteract this influence. One answer is in being sensitive to these images and looking for ways to portray a realistic variety of body types in our immediate physical environment. We can also help young people understand that our culture's focus on body image is superficial and that most images seen in the media do not represent reality. Moreover, the "perfection" we strive for can leave us feeling self-conscious, anxious, frustrated and angry.

Encouraging and stimulating discussion among young people is key for self-reflection and subsequent change. Here are a few ideas to try with teens:

  • Remind teens that most of us have some issue with our bodies. Ask them for ideas on how we can shift our negative energy to more positive thoughts, such as appreciating the parts of our bodies that we think are attractive.

  • Focus on how our bodies functionally serve us. Discuss the ways we need our strength and physical capability or coordination to function and enjoy life through participation in sports, hiking, playing, etc. These aspects of body image (our physical strength, capabilities) often go unappreciated.

  • Ask students to consider which of the cultural pressures — glamour, fitness, thinness, media, peer group — prevent them from feeling good about themselves. Ask them how this happens and what they can do about it.

  • Help teens to accept the fact that their bodies are changing, and are "works in progress." Instead of wanting to exchange their bodies, ask them how they will find peace with the ones they have. (Maynard, Body Image, 1998)

  • Ask and then discuss with teens how they wish to spend their energy — in pursuit of the "perfect body image" or enjoying family, friends, school and, most importantly, life. (Lightstone, 1999)

Additional activities designed to increase awareness about body image issues are found in Promoting Healthy Body Image, A Guide for Program Planners, at:



More Information/Resources

Organizations and web sites with information on promoting healthy body image for youth include:


Suggested books, curricula, resource guides, and articles:

Recommended magazines, 'zines, and journals:

    "Blue Jean offers an alternative to the beauty and glamour web sites and magazines targeting young women, so you will find no beauty tips, fashion spreads, or supermodels on the site."
    Online magazine:
    PO Box 67111
    Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
    phone: 1-866-FOR-BLUE

  • Teen Voices: Because you're more than a pretty face
    "Teen Voices is more than just a magazine because we believe that you are more than just a pretty face. Teen Voices is about girls being themselves and realizing their potential. There are enough magazines that tell girls how to look and act to impress a boy or buy certain products."

    Teen Voices
    c/o Women Express
    P.O. Box 120-027
    Boston, MA 02112-0027
    Phone: 617-426-5505
    Toll Free: 888-882-TEEN
    Fax: 617 426-5577

    For information on West Coast Programs, contact:
    Bay Area Teen Voices
    3288 21st Street, #158
    San Francisco, CA 94110
    Phone: 415 821-7815

  • New Moon & New Moon Network
    "New Moon Publishing produces media for every girl who wants her voice heard and her dreams taken seriously and for every adult who cares about girls. Resources include print materials, posters, books, and web site."

    New Moon Publishing
    P.O. Box 3620
    Duluth, MN 55803
    Phone: 1-800-381-4743
    Fax: (218) 728-0314

  • Healthy Weight Journal: Research, New and Commentary Across the Weight Spectrum
    "As the leading journal in its field, Healthy Weight Journal provides a critical link between research and practical application. Frances M. Berg, MS, editor and founder, is a licensed nutritionist, family wellness specialist, and adjunct professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine."

    Editorial Offices:
    402 South 14th Street
    Hettinger, ND 58639
    Phone: 1-800-568-7281; 701-567-2646
    Fax: 701-567-2602

  • Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women
    "Radiance is an upbeat, positive, glossy, colorful, quarterly magazine for women all sizes of large.

    P.O. Box 30246
    Oakland, CA 94604
    Phone: 510-482-0680
    Fax: 510-482-1576

Most popular magazines (titles like Ms. and Mode) and medical and health journals are carrying articles about weight, bodies, self-esteem, etc. You just need to look for them and be able to recognize the difference between body positive and body negative writing. Sometimes it can be subtle.

Recommended videos:

  • Beyond the Looking Glass
    Human Relations Media
    A 32-minute video for teens about self-esteem and body image that addresses the dilemma of how to develop a genuine sense of identity in a society where sleek, idealized bodies have become standards to which many believe they must conform.

  • BodyTalk: Teens Talk About Their Bodies, Eating Disorders and Activism
    The Body Positive
    A 28-minute video on body acceptance issues for 9-18 year-old boys and girls. This documentary focuses on teens struggles and how they resist, change and heal.

  • Calories
    Jude Epstein
    Short music video with powerful message to women of all ages about a woman with low self-esteem and negative body image.

  • The Famine Within
    a film by Katherine Gidlay
    Media Inc.
    A 55-minute video examining body image, eating disorders, self-esteem and media influences, as well as bulimia and anorexia information.

  • Fat Chance: The BIG Prejudice
    Bullfrog Films
    A humorous and sensitive story of a man who set out to lose half of his body weight and found all of himself along the way.

  • Food Fright
    a film by Roger M. Sherman
    Media Inc.
    A 28-minute video adapted from a popular stage review of the same title exploring the thoughts and feelings of millions of women who are trapped in a secret life of bulimia, anorexia, over-exercise and food fixation.

  • Nothing To Lose
    Fat Lip Readers Theatre
    PO Box 29963
    Oakland CA 94604
    A 30-minute video with the words and experiences of 15 fat women, speaking, acting and singing about being fat.

  • Self-Image: The Fantasy, The Reality
    In The Mix
    A 30-minute video by teens, for teens about the many complex issues surrounding self-image and body image.

  • When Food Becomes an Obsession
    Human Relations Media
    A 28-minute video for teens that, through a series of candid interviews, sheds light on why teens are prone to starve and abuse their bodies in order to achieve a "perfect" body image.