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Learning Activities

All Learning Activities

Making Connections: Identifying the Links Between Body Image and Sexual Health

by Maureen Kelly

This month's learning activity includes the following sections:


Thoughtful and healthy decision making is a vital cornerstone in positive youth development. Youth require information and support to build and practice skills as well as evaluate and understand the many factors that can impact decision making. Body image — the mental representation someone has of his/her physical self at any given point in time — is one of many factors that can either positively or negatively impact an individual's ability to make a thoughtful and healthy decision.

Research from Minnesota's comprehensive school-based health behavior study of 7th-12th graders ("Frequent Dieting Among Adolescents: Psychological and Health Behavior Correlates," French et al, American Journal of Public Health, May 1995. Vol. 5, No. 5) shows that youth — both boys and girls — who self-reported frequent dieting behaviors also reported more incidence of other risky behaviors like: alcohol use, tobacco use, suicide attempts, higher use of sick days, and a higher incidence of sexual activity than their non-dieting peers. On the most basic level, people — youth and adults alike — make better decisions when they feel good about themselves.

Conversely, when people feel like they are not pretty enough, tall enough, muscular enough, skinny enough, or curvy enough, it is possible that they may make compromises in their decision-making process because they feel inadequate.

Comments like, "Who else would date me?" or "Look at me! I’ll never get a date" can be heard in school hallways and youth groups. One possible negative effect of this type of "not enough" thinking can be making concessions in a decision-making process.



This group activity is designed to identify the connections between negative body image and sexual decision making. Educators can also use the information and insights gained from this activity to explore possible implications on their work and possible routes of action.

Note: This activity should occur after the basic concept of body image is introduced to the class and after groundrules are established for safe and comfortable group discussion about sensitive topics.


  • Newsprint or large paper
  • Markers



  1. Prepare one large sheet of newsprint for each small group. On each sheet of the newsprint, have one of the following topics printed at the top: "Intercourse/Oral Sex" "Birth Control" and "Sexually Transmitted Infections."

  2. Break the large group into work groups of five to eight people. Give one paper with one topic to each small group.

  3. Ask participants to brainstorm all the possible ways in which a negative body image can impact sexual decisions or sexual behaviors related to the topic they are assigned. (i.e., How could having a negative body image impact someone's choices about sexual intercourse? Or, How could having a negative body image impact someone's contraceptive choices?)

    Possible Responses:

    • They might have sex with anyone because they think that no one else would ever like them.

    • They might not use birth control because some of the methods can make girls gain weight.

    • They might not get an STI test because they don't want to go to the doctor and undress or get weighed.

    • They might be in relationships with people who are not good for them because they don't think anyone else would ever date them.

  4. After between seven to 15 minutes of small group work (depending on the group size — allow more time for large small groups), ask each group to share their list with the large group. After all the groups have given their reports, post the sheets of newsprint on the wall and encourage discussion around some of the following questions:

    • Do the lists have anything in common? If so, what are they?

    • Why do you think it's important to talk about the connections between sexuality and body image?

    • How could we teach about sexual decision making and incorporate body image awareness and body acceptance? What would you teach in this lesson if you were planning it?

      Note: Some of the best ideas about teaching about body image and sexuality have come directly from the youth who were asked, "What would you do?"

    • Have you ever seen this negative body image/risky sexual behavior connection? Talk about what you have seen or experienced.

    • What are some concrete things people can do to fight a negative body image? Is it hard? Easy?

    • What is one small thing you can do this week to fight negative body image.



The better people feel, the better decisions they make. Body image and sexual health fit clearly into that equation. Creating group activities to explore those connections and understanding the negative impact that poor body image has on healthy and thoughtful decision making is an important start to a larger learning process. With sexual literacy as a goal, youth require honest, open conversations about sexual health and body image.


About the Author

Maureen Kelly, CFLE, is an author, educator and activist around issues of sexuality, health and human rights. As the Director of Education and Training for Planned Parenthood of Tompkins County, Kelly works to advance sexual literacy, increase access to sexuality information and encourage thoughtful community dialog about human sexuality. Kelly's published works include My Body, My Rules: The Body Esteem, Sexual Esteem Connection.

Kelly is currently serving her second term on the board of directors of the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States. She can be reached at