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Unhealthy body image is a such a huge issue that affects so many of our teens. It can overlap with other longer term issues such as self-harm and mental health challenges. Yet in addition this, an  impact we don’t often dare whisper is how the body image bear can lead to sexual confidence difficulties in adult life. So how do we even begin to address this?

A good starting point is to understand the difference between an unhealthy and healthy body image. We all have a body image. However, the key essential is for a person to feel comfortable in their own skin without feeling the need to change (healthy body image). The alternative is  constantly comparing against unrealistic, airbrushed and ‘hyper-Hollywood’ bodies and wanting to change body size, shape, skin, etc. (unhealthy body image). It is difficult for anyone (and more so for young people) to appreciate themselves in a positive way when media focus is so critical of the every-day person, yet a healthy and positive body image is one of the keys for maintaining a sense of wellbeing.

Body Image ranks in the top 3 concerns for young people, right up there with Coping with Stress and School or Study Problems. Amongst young women, a massive 42.1% indicated that body image was a major concern, compared with 14.4% of young men. (Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2013 – young people aged 15 – 19).

The Australian Government introduced the voluntary body image code in 2009 to encourage positive action within the fashion, advertising, media and entertainment industries to bring about long-term cultural change. Not surprisingly, this has primarily fallen on deaf ears and advertising dollars continuing to rule.  Men and women, young and old alike, find themselves constantly picked apart piece by piece as they compare themselves to the body parts highlighted in overtly sexualised images – in all forms of media and most areas of society.

The problem with efforts such as the body image code is that they fail to address the heart of the matter. Confidence is built when people value themselves and are appreciated for who they are on the inside… not how they present on the outside. When a person values themselves for WHO they are, not WHAT they are, they are more likely to enter into a relationship with a sense of security in their sexuality that is based on their inner wellbeing – not their external appearance.

Perhaps we have to stop and ask this question: When we hear about women being criticised for their looks, fashion or appearance, who is doing the criticising? What’s the cause of the constant judgements??

One possible reason is that when someone is not self-accepting of their own body image, they can tend to reject and judge not just themselves, but others. If people erect barriers of defence and self-rejection, judging, criticising and putting others down can be a desperate attempt to to validate self. A limited opinion of self often comes with a barrage of toxic thoughts, making it difficult to catch, challenge, correct and change self-sabotaging behaviour, bad habits, negative self-talk and destructive comments towards others.

When a person struggles with an unhealthy self image or body image, sometimes they may need someone to walk alongside them to help catch, challenge, correct and change toxic thought patterns so they can learn to interpret life from a positive framework. This will help with assertiveness, reaching their full potential, and offering genuine acceptance of self and others for who they are as people, regardless of looks.

Whilst it’s always important to teach teens to analyse media, if we leave things at this surface level we will never get to the heart of the body image bear. To help our young people towards a healthy body image, remember to include these focusses in conversation:

  1. What is your self talk? When you look in the mirror, what is your inner voice saying? If it’s telling you lies, it’s time to replace it with statements such as “I’m different. I’m okay. I’m acceptable – just like EVERYONE ELSE on the planet.”
  2. Your value comes from the inside – practicing character traits such as empathy, kindness and integrity will make you feel way better about yourself than any other external trait.
  3. See body image pressures for what they are – media or other people’s expectations of an ideal that simply does not exist. Trying to conform to unreality will always leave you feeling empty. Accepting yourself for who you are and focusing on a healthy version of you will empower you to walk in confidence.

Continuing to only having ears for bombarding messages of media can leave a person feeling empty, no matter how much spray tanning, bodybuilding, dieting or botox. It’s essential to encourage our teens to dig below surface level to unearth their value as a person, and help them discover how empowering it can be to build others up through words of acceptance and encouragement.


For further support and resources, ask me about our new Body Image education for Primary School kids!

Liz Walker

International authority on porn harms, education and advocacy.

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