Annabelle Ryburn is a registered psychologist with Eating Disorders Victoria who works with clients experiencing diagnosed eating disorders, disordered eating and body image disturbance. She discusses the relationship between childhood body image and mental health, and offers families tips to support their children as they grow.   

How much does body image affect children’s sense of self and mental health?

The relationship between mental health and body image can be seen as bi-directional. Having poor self-esteem and a sense of low self-worth can result in emotional distress, which can prompt young people to seek a ‘solution’, such as changing/controlling their body image to attempt to feel better about themselves. Conversely, an intense focus on body that is encouraged by media exposure (without informed literacy), or the attitudes of a peer group or home environment, can lead to a sense of self overly focused on body image. This focus can result in mental states of anxiety and depression.

Does body image mostly encompass weight and body shape?

Body image mostly relates to how we view our weight, shape and size, and the thoughts and emotions that we have around these. It can also include other features such as hair, skin markings, disabilities and aids such as prosthetics, glasses or hearing devices.

Why is negative body image such a concern for children? Was it so prevalent 10 or 20 years ago?  

The information age that we are experiencing currently has meant that children are increasingly exposed to cultural ideals of body image. Many forms of social media encourage behaviour of presenting yourself as your physical image (such as selfies) and create a platform for which comparison and rating of these images is an expectation. This context encourages the notion of self-worth to be attached to appearance and body image, and our sense of self-worth has a direct impact on our mental health and wellbeing. 

What are the main risks for a child developing negative body image? 

A poor sense of self, a lack of ability to manage difficult emotions or a low self-worth in a variety of life spheres can increase the risk of negative body image. Predominantly, there is the greater risk a child may focus on their body as one aspect that they dislike, over which they believe they can exert some control and change, or as a focus point of their negative view of themselves due to its tangible and visible nature.

Research is starting to demonstrate that negative attitudes towards physical appearance by parents, older siblings and caregivers have a direct impact on children’s views of themselves. This may involve others commenting negatively about themselves, or even directly on the child’s appearance.

Broader exposure to popular media ideals and peer discussion, without introducing literacy and moderation around these, can lead to children being exposed to ideas and expectations that may create anxiety around their body image and ‘acceptability’. 

What advice do you have for parents and carers in developing positive body image in their kids?

Creating an environment where children can feel safe expressing their differing opinions and how they are feeling emotionally is the best way to foster a healthy and valued sense of self. This includes teaching children healthy ways to respond to their emotions (eg asking for and receiving support in response to sadness/fear/anxiety). Additionally, parents can:

  • become aware of their own body image and relationship to food, the associated language they bring into the child’s living environment and how these elements might impact the child’s view of their own body
  • talk to their children about the images presented in popular media and educate them about the goals of advertising 
  • keep an open dialogue with their children about the types of conversations that might be happening with their peers with regards to body image and encourage them to express how they feel in response to these conversations. 

For more information about the resources and services offered by Eating Disorders Victoria, go to: www.eatingdisorders.org.au