Photo: Tobias Brockow
We are facing a crisis in body confidence, especially among girls (but sometimes among boys too.)
These anxieties about appearance can lead to extreme, sometimes dangerous, diets, to obsessive concern with body shape and appearance and to lack of self-esteem. Research shows that when this gets out of hand, young people pay less attention to their education. They are more prone to depression and to risky behaviours including drugs, alcohol, self-harm and unsafe sex.
Of course, admiring beauty is part of being human. We can't get away from the fact that we like the way some people look. But it becomes a problem when young people assume that how you look is all that matters (or even the main thing). Not least when the looks they aspire to are faked in the first place. The idea that we should all be looking not just like celebrities, but like celebrities after they have been airbrushed and digitally enhanced, is enough to make anyone depressed. But for young people dealing with their own changing shapes and adolescent uncertainties, the pressure can become unbearable.
What is causing lack of body confidence?
Media Celebrities are airbrushed and 'improved' on the one hand and picked apart in the media on the other. Cellulite and spots and pointed out and held up as a failure. We are bombarded by articles suggesting ways to improve our own looks.
Other social factors Family and friends can knowingly and unknowingly add to the pressure by teasing, bullying, accusing people of being fat and generally equating less-than-perfect looks with failure.
Biology It can be hard being an adolescent - rapid body changes, visibly turning into a girl or a boy, developing faster or slower than your friends.
Psychology How young people feel about themselves can make a big difference to how they cope. Children with high self-esteem who don't see themselves and others primarily as sexual objects and don't compare themselves to others cope better. Those who believe they have to look perfect before they are entitled to expect equality, respect or appreciation - not surprisingly - do worse.
What can you do?
There are things that it is hard to alter as a parent - like the onslaught of media images and commentary - but some young people cope better than others.
- Remind your child that most pictures they see in the media have been airbrushed, manipulated or digitally enhanced, for example to make hair shinier or muscles more defined. Get them to talk about how they think this has been done; develop their media awareness.
- Be positive about your own body size and shape. Don't complain about your looks.
- Be accepting of other people's body sizes and shapes.
- Emphasise other attributes - both theirs and other people's. Talk up attitudes, skills, achievements, outlook.
- Don't be afraid to praise the physical attributes that make your child unique.
- Listen to their concerns about body image. Ask (sympathetically but without endorsing what they're saying) why they feel as they do; get them to dissect where these worries come from.
- Provide reassurance that they are loved and loveable just as they are and there is nothing 'wrong' with them.
- Encourage exercise - paradoxically, lack of body confidence often stops young people exercising. There is evidence that those who exercise feel better about themselves.