Body Image and Self esteem

Body Image and Self-esteem 

Positive body image and healthy self-esteem are important to a child's health and wellbeing. The media, people around us, and popular culture all influence our body image.  In today's society, children and youth are exposed to many images that show being thin and muscular as a standard of beauty, elegance and masculinity. Television, magazines, movies, the internet and social media sites are full of these images.

Seeing these images over and over again is linked to poor body image and feelings that our own bodies are not okay. These feelings can affect your child's self-esteem and negatively affect their mental health and wellbeing.

Sadly, poor body image and self-esteem among children and youth is common and continuing to increase. The negative effects of these feelings can last throughout a person's life, not just in childhood and adolescence. Parents can help their children build a healthy body image at any age. It is never too early to start, as we know that about 30% of children as young as 10 to 14 are dieting, according to a study by the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

What is body image and self-esteem? 

 Body image
Body image is a child's attitude towards their body. It includes the mental picture of how they see themselves when they look in the mirror, how they feel about the way they look, and how they think others see them. Society, the media, family and peers attitudes affect a person's body image.

Having a healthy body image means that a person:

  • Accepts the way they look without trying to change their body to fit what they think they should look like
  • Values what they look like, by seeing  the qualities and strengths that make them feel good about themselves beyond weight, shape or looks
  • Resists the pressure to have the "perfect" body that they see in the media, online, and in society
  • Does not spend a lot of time worrying about food, weight, or calories
  • Does not judge others on their body weight, shape, and/or eating or exercise habits
  • Understands that a person's physical appearance is not a sign of their character or values
  • Feels comfortable and confident in their body

Having a negative body image means that a person:

  • Believes that what they look like determines them as a person
  • Has constant negative thoughts about their body and constantly compares themselves to others
  • Has a distorted idea about their body, in that they see parts of their body unlike they really are
  • Is obsessed with trying to change their actual body shape/size to measure up to family, social, or media ideals
  • Is convinced that only other people are attractive and that their body's shape/size is a sign of personal failure
  • Feels ashamed, self-conscious, and anxious about their body
  • Feels uncomfortable and awkward in their body
Self-esteem is the value and respect a child places on themselves. It is about how they see themselves as a whole person, not just how they view their body. Self-esteem is the opinion people have about all aspects of themselves and it impacts how they take care of themselves, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Having a positive self-esteem means that a person:

  • Values themselves
  • Knows that they deserve good care and respect from themselves and from others
  • Knows that they are lovable, capable, and unique
  • Knows their strengths and abilities and celebrate them
  • Has a positive outlook
  • Feels satisfied with themselves most of the time, it is totally normal to have a few lows sometimes
  • Sets realistic goals

Having a poor self-esteem means that a person:

  • Does not value themselves and puts little value on their opinions and ideas
  • May constantly worry that they are not good enough
  • Focuses on their perceived weaknesses and faults and gives very little credit to their skills and assets
  • Believes that others are more capable or successful
  • May be unable to accept compliments or positive feedback
  • May have fear of failure, which can hold them back from trying new things

Self-esteem is more than just a person seeing their good qualities. It is being able to see all of their abilities and weaknesses together, accepting them, and doing the best they can with what they have. When a person has good self-esteem, they don't put themselves down when they make a mistake and they still feel like they are good enough even when they are dealing with difficult feelings or situations.

Factors that affect body image and self-esteem
Various factors will affect how we feel about ourselves and our bodies. Some factors are controllable, others are not. Certain factors may also affect one person more than another person. How we react to all these factors can determine our self-esteem and body image.

Personal Factors


Thoughts and feelings about your body start in childhood. Poor body image often emerges in late childhood and early adolescence. However, poor body image can affect people of all ages.


Teenage girls are more at risk for having poor body image than other children of the same age group.  However, more and more boys are having body image issues.

Body size

Children and teens who are or believe they are at a higher weight (whether they are or not) tend to be more at risk for poor body image.

Societal Factors

Society and culture

Society's norms and views may stop boys and young men from talking about negative feelings about their bodies or reaching out to others to get support. This will often lead to an under reporting of the issue of poor body image in boys. Boys are also told at a young age that being a man means being strong which can make them feel that they want to be more muscular.

Body weight is the number one reason for bullying in schools which can lead to poor body image and affect confidence and self-esteem. Children who get teased or bullied about their looks, weight or body shape are also more likely to have poor body image.

Beauty/fashion industry

Every day we see ads from the beauty, fashion, diet and exercise industries that show "perfect" bodies. Many children and youth compare themselves to these ads which can lead to low self-esteem and poor body image. 


Messages and images on the internet, social media, TV and radio and in video games affect how we see others and ourselves. These messages can change how we dress, look, eat, and act with others. Youth will compare themselves to these images and in part form their identity based on them.

Family and friends

Families affect how teens think they should look and act.

  • Build strong relationships with your child or youth as good communication and less family stress will help your child develop a positive body image. This will allow you to ask questions about their feelings and know what is going on with your child.
  • Children who feel that their parents are pushing them to be thin or who judge them on their weight and body shape are more likely to have poor body image and to diet.
  • If a child feels thier family approves of their looks and body, then they most likely will have a positive body image of themselves.
  • The way a parent thinks about body image has an impact on how children see themselves. How a parent feels about their own body and concerns about their weight may affect their child's body image.
  • Talking about dieting and ways to gain or lose weight, or teasing others about their looks can lead to a poor body image. 
Consequences of poor body image 
A poor body image can cause many mental and physical effects on children and youth. These effects can be profound and complex because of the many factors involved.
Mental health challenges
Poor body image and self-esteem is linked with various mental health and other health conditions like anxiety, depression, unhealthy dieting, and disordered eating.

Body image and self-esteem directly influence each other and a person's feelings, thoughts, and actions. If a child doesn't like their body or a part of their body (poor body image) it is hard for them to feel good about their whole self (positive self-esteem). The reverse is also true. If a person does not value themselves (poor self-esteem), it will be hard for them to notice the good things and give their body the respect it deserves (good body image).

The diagram below shows how good body image and self-esteem have a positive effect on mental health:


 Credit: Body Image, Self-Esteem and Mental health, heretohelp, 2015

These are just a few examples. As you can see, good body image, self-esteem, and mental health are not about making a person feel happy all the time. They are really about respecting themselves and others, thinking realistically, and taking action to cope with problems or difficulties in healthy ways.

The diagram below shows how poor body image and self-esteem have a negative effect on mental health:


Credit: Body Image, Self-Esteem and Mental health, heretohelp, 2015

As you can see, the problem with negative thinking and feelings is that once people start to focus on shortcomings or problems in one area or one situation, it becomes very easy to only see problems in other areas or situations. Negative thinking has a way of leading to more negative thinking and feeleing.

Disordered eating

Disordered eating is a condition where the person has some symptoms of an eating disorder but the symptoms do not occur as often or to such an extreme that a health care professional would diagnose them to have anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. Disordered eating behaviours can include weight, shape or size preoccupation, a striving for perfection, yo-yo (on and off) dieting, cutting out certain food groups with no medical reasons like allergies, excessive exercising, fasting or restricting, compulsive overeating, purging, steroid use, and laxative abuse.

Disordered eating can happen once in a while or at certain key moments in your child's life, often as a result of a stressful event, illness or preparing for an athletic event. However, when disordered eating goes on for long periods of time and starts to get in the way of your child's everyday life and activities, or is used to cope with strong feelings, it may lead to an eating disorder. People who engage in disordered eating are more at risk for eating disorders.

Credit: Body Image, Self-Esteem and Mental health, heretohelp, 2015

Who is affected by eating disorders?
Eating disorders can affect anyone of any sex, age, backgrounds and cultures. However, there are some things that make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder:
  • Genetic predisposition

  • Having a mental illness like anxiety or depression
  • Low self-esteem or poor body image
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Difficulties coping with stress
  • Not having good social supports 

While the media may often show unrealistic body images as the ideal, such as very thin or muscular body types, this alone does not cause an eating disorder. How we think about and act on what we see is what affects our self-esteem and self-worth. 

What can I do to help my child with an eating disorder?
Supporting someone living with an eating disorder can be very challenging. The symptoms of an eating disorder can often be viewed as signs of other conditions.  If you do see some signs and have concerns about your child's well being, trust your instinct.

It is important to know that those with eating disorders try very hard to keep it a secret, so parents may not pick up on the signs or symptoms until the disorder is more advanced. So parents should not feel guilty or blame themselves if they did not see it earlier.

Many people feel upset or even frightened when learning someone they care about has an eating disorder. Focusing on how to best support and understand what they are going through, instead of trying to control the person and the issue will bring about the best outcomes. Here are some tips on how you can support your child with an eating disorder:

  • Remember that eating disorders are not just about food, they are a sign of mental health problems and/or coping strategies, so try not to focus on food or eating habits alone.
  • Be aware of your own thoughts and actions around food and body image
  • Model healthy and positive attitudes towards food and body image
  • Try not to react positively or negatively when a loved one talks about their bodies (ex. If your loved one expresses "I'm so fat", instead of saying they are not, say something like "it sounds like you feel uncomfortable in your body today. Did something happen at school that might be stressing you out?" then talk about that issue.
  • Seek help from a professional early and support them through this process
  • Get professional help for yourself and other family members to learn how to best support the individual and yourself
  • Take care of yourself! In order to support someone else, we must first take care of ourselves


How can I support a positive body image and self-esteem for my child?

Although a child's body image and self-esteem will be influenced by many factors, parents can play a crucial role in supporting their child's relationship with their body and in helping them build a healthy body image and self-esteem.

Be a positive role model
Parents are the first and most significant role models in their child's life. You are faced with the difficult challenge of modeling positive feelings toward their body image, nutrition, and exercise. Here are some tips that you can use to help your child develop a positive body image and self-esteem.

Think about your own body image

How you think about your body, and how it affects you, is really up to you. Here are some ways to re-frame the way you think about your body:

  • Remember that health and looks are two different things.
  • Realize that a certain body size, shape will not bring you happiness or fulfillment. 
  • Try not to judge people based on their weight, their eating habits or their activity level. Try not to judge yourself either!
  • Value yourself based on who you are, not what you look like. Appreciate yourself for your character, strengths, achievements, and talents.
  • Try not to let your feelings about your weight, shape, and what you eat determine the course of your day. 
  • View with a critical lens. Consider whether the messages they send about body image are healthy and/or realistic. Remember that it's your body, and how you feel about it is up to you.

Improve your own body image

Here are some tips for improving your body image: 

  • If you are feeling down about yourself, talk to someone you trust like a friend, family member or healthcare professional.
  • List your strengths, talents and other qualities that you love about yourself.
  • Surround yourself and spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself and who support you.
  • Find a balance in achieving health and in life too! Focus on healthy eating, being active, and feeling good about yourself.
  • Choose a physical activity you enjoy. You are more likely to do it often if you like it. Do it for the joy of it, not to lose weight.
  • Wear clothes that express your personal style and that are comfortable to you.
  • Carry yourself with confidence and pride in knowing who you are.
  • Do something positive every day.
  • Find beauty in yourself and in others.
Media Literacy
Media is a strong influence in the lives of children and youth. Movies, TV, video games, music, magazines and other media all have an impact on how they see the world. Limiting how much media your child sees can help make sure that they are not getting the wrong messages about what healthy bodies look like.

Here are some ideas to help you limit the number of unhealthy images your child sees in media:

  • Pick TV channels or services that don't have commercials or record shows ahead of time and fast forward through the commercials when your child is watching
  • Pick magazines that show healthy, realistic kids and teens and the activities that they like to do
  • Watch media or read magazines with your child and t tell them that companies use things like airbrushing, soft focus cameras, digital editing, makeup application or cosmetic surgery to make models look a certain way
  • Teach children to think about media and ask questions about why certain things are supposed to be attractive
  • Be aware of what you are watching, reading and/or playing when your child is around. Even if the content seems okay, seeing too many unhealthy/unrealistic body images can affect how children and teens act.
  • Keep TVs, computers and video games in a common area and not in the bedrooms. This lets you see what your kids are looking at and decide if it is healthy

By teaching kids that the models and pictures they see in media are unhealthy and often not possible to achieve, children will be less likely to accept these images as the standard for how they should look. 

General Tips
  • Model positive self esteem and body image. As a parent your child or teen can see all the good things bodies can do. By having a healthy lifestyle, being active, eating well and feeling good about yourself you are helping your teenager resist extreme exercise plans and dieting messages.
  • Build strong relationships with your child or youth as good communication and less family stress will help your child develop a positive body image. This will allow you to ask questions about their feelings and know what is going on with your child.
  • Encourage your child/teen to be active. Being active is an important part of physical self-esteem. Physical self-esteem is the attitude someone has towards physical activity.  When teens exercise to improve their health, instead of to lose or gain weight, they are more likely to have a positive body image. They can learn to appreciate what their bodies can do, instead of how it looks to others.
  • Help your child develop and value their strengths and abilities in different parts of life. For example, get them involved in extracurricular activities like art classes, martial arts and yoga. This can include spiritual, intellectual, emotional, social and physical qualities.








Do you have more questions about parenting?

  • Connect with a registered nurse from Health811 for free, secure, and confidential health advice. Service is available 24/7 in English and French, with translation support also offered in other languages. Call 8-1-1 or visit
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  • You can update your child's immunization record using either the CANImmunize App or the Immunization Connect Ontario (ICON) Tool
  • If you have received a message from Ottawa Public Health such as a letter or a call regarding immunization, an infectious disease, or infection control lapse, please call 613-580-6744 and listen to the menu options carefully.















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