Teens and Body Image: What Should Parents Know? | Aster Springs

Teens and Body Image: What Should Parents Know?

In a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of parents said their teen feels self-conscious about their appearance 1. Spot the early signs of negative body image and help your teen develop healthy self-esteem.

For parents, it can be shocking to see how early children start forming opinions about body size and physical appearance. As social media has become more ubiquitous in kids’ lives, their exposure to rigid, often unrealistic beauty standards is occurring earlier than ever before. Kids as young as 8 are being influenced by beauty content on social media; in a study from 2022, 57% of girls and nearly half of boys ages 8-12 reported feeling self-conscious about their appearance 1. Among teenagers ages 13-17, those numbers skyrocket to 73% and 69%, respectively. 

Body image dissatisfaction, characterized by pervasive negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body, is linked to higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety among teens  1. Negative body image is also a risk factor for the development of eating disorders among young people 2

In this article, we’ll explore the warning signs of body image disturbances and explain the steps parents can take to foster healthy body image and self-esteem among their teens.

What is Body Image?

Body image is the collection of thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors (both positive and negative) a person has regarding their physical body. 

The Four Components of Body Image

  • Perceptual body image is the way you see your body, irrespective of what you actually look like. This includes your perception of your body’s shape, size, and proportions. Because perceptual body image is subjective, a person’s visual picture of themselves may be drastically different from their actual appearance. This is why many people with eating disorders see themselves as overweight or obese when, in reality, they are an average or below-average weight.
  • Affective body image is how you feel about your body, including the positive, negative, or neutral emotions you associate with your physical appearance. While many people experience simultaneous positive and negative feelings about their bodies (you may like one part of your body but feel shame or embarrassment about another part), affective body image can be summed up as the overall level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you feel about the way you look.
  • Cognitive body image is the thoughts and beliefs you have about your body and appearance. This may include negative thoughts about your body size and shape (“My arms are too big to wear that dress”, “If I was more muscular, I could talk to that girl”) as well as the level of preoccupation and concern you have about your appearance.
  • Behavioral body image is the way your thoughts and feelings about your body influence your behavior. For instance, a person who feels self-conscious about their skin may avoid looking people in the eye. A person who feels shame or anxiety about their body size may avoid eating in public or shopping for new clothes. Conversely, a person who feels satisfied or neutral about their body may feel completely at ease in these situations. 

What causes negative body image and body image disturbance in teens?

It’s important to remember that teens are gaining self-awareness just as their bodies and hormones are entering a time of rapid change. While the majority of teens experience some level of self-consciousness about their changing bodies, many teens become preoccupied with their perceived physical flaws—to the point that it interferes with their ability to socialize, excel in school, or engage in normal teenage activities. 

For some teens, feelings of self-consciousness or dissatisfaction with their bodies evolve into disordered eating. Body image disturbance is a key risk factor in the development of eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa 3, and is associated with higher rates of ED relapse. 

Several factors are associated with the development of body image issues in adolescence: 

  • Media portrayals of ideal bodies and beauty standards: The media portrays a very specific (and often unattainable) body type as desirable or healthy. Children internalize these messages and may scrutinize and compare their own bodies to the ones they see in the media.
  • Appearance-related bullying: Children who are bullied about their weight, height, physical features, or body shape are more likely to experience low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and self-consciousness about their appearance. 
  • Parent and caregiver behavior: Parents and caregivers can affect a teen’s body image both directly (commenting on or criticizing a teen’s appearance, weight, or eating habits) and indirectly (frequently talking about dieting, criticizing their own body or physical features, criticizing other people’s bodies or physical features). 
  • Cultural influences: Most cultures have their own standards of beauty and attractiveness. When a young person perceives their own body as falling short of their culture’s beauty ideal, they may feel uncomfortable or ashamed of their appearance and feel intense pressure to change the way they look.
  • Personality traits, like perfectionism and obsessiveness, can contribute to a preoccupation with appearance among teens. Teens who struggle to accept or overlook their physical “imperfections” may also go to extreme lengths to “fix” them. This can lead to an obsession with cosmetic surgery, fad diets, and toxic beauty trends like waist training or extreme fasting.

Signs of Poor Body Image in Teens

For parents, it can be painful to watch a child’s relationship with their body deteriorate as they enter adolescence. A teen who once loved running up and down the soccer field may suddenly appear quiet, withdrawn, and moody when they enter gym class. A child who was once confident and comfortable in their own skin may suddenly seem self-conscious, ashamed, or disgusted when they pass a mirror.

Left unchecked, poor body image can have a pervasive negative impact on a teen’s mental well-being and functioning; at worst, it can lead to eating disorders and self-harming behaviors. It is critical for parents to intervene when they notice the red flags of negative body image cropping up in their teen’s words and behaviors.

Here are some of the key signs of poor body image in your teen: 

  • They frequently talk about body weight, body size, and “needing” to lose weight
  • They categorize certain bodies as “good” or “bad”
  • They frequently compare their own body to those of celebrities, influencers, or their friends
  • They aspire to have the “perfect” body or the “ideal” appearance; they may express an interest in extreme dieting or cosmetic surgery to attain these ideals
  • They seem to attach their self-worth to their appearance, body size, or body weight
  • They avoid activities that expose or draw attention to their body, e.g. visiting a public swimming pool or taking part in school sports
  • They wear baggy or shapeless clothes and feel uncomfortable in more revealing clothing; they may feel uncomfortable while shopping for clothes or trying on clothing
  • They have withdrawn from their friends and social groups and spend increasing amounts of time alone
  • They frequently express negative thoughts and attitudes about their physical appearance (“I hate my thighs”, “I wish I had bigger biceps”, “I’m not pretty enough to get a date”)

Body-checking behaviors are also linked to negative body image in teens. Body checking isn’t a quick glance in the mirror before running out the door for school; it’s a compulsive need to evaluate one’s own body and appearance. Body checking is a physical response to a person’s intense fears and anxieties about the way they look or how their body is perceived by other people. 

Examples of Body-Checking Behaviors

  • Frequent weighing
  • Frequent mirror checking, especially when hyper-focusing on certain body parts or physical features
  • Feeling or checking for bones 
  • Pinching flesh or body fat
  • Measuring body parts like the waist, thighs, or upper arms
  • Seeking other people’s feedback on body shape, size, and appearance
  • Checking for a thigh gap
  • Frequently taking pictures to evaluate body weight, size, and shape

Adolescence is a critical time for building an identity and developing healthy self-esteem and self-perception. It’s also a time of vulnerability. With social media dominating many teens’ free time, the stream of toxic messages about ideal bodies and beauty standards is neverending. 

Fortunately, body image isn’t a static concept. It can be positively influenced by a number of things–and parents can play a key role in helping their teens develop healthy habits and beliefs regarding their bodies.

Helping Your Teen Develop a Healthier Body Image

Many parents don’t realize it, but they have a major influence on their teen’s developing beliefs and feelings about body image, appearance, and self-esteem.  

Here’s how parents can promote healthy self-esteem and positive body image in their teens:

  • Avoid talking about your teen’s appearance or commenting on their eating habits
  • Don’t talk negatively about your own body or other people’s bodies
  • Avoid talking about food in moral terms like “junk”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”; instead, use neutral terms that give all foods equal weight and value
  • Help your teen find activities or hobbies that foster their self-esteem and help them build skills they’re proud of 
  • Encourage your teen to wear comfortable clothes that make them feel confident and capable, regardless of trends or what their friends are wearing

Tips for open communication and fostering support.

  • Be honest about your own struggles with body image. 
  • Compliment your child’s positive behaviors and good choices instead of their physical appearance
  • Emphasize your unconditional love and acceptance of your teen, irrespective of their appearance or weight
  • Help your teen focus on what their body can do, rather than what it looks like
  • If your child has experienced weight-related bullying, help them cope with these feelings and advocate for their safety to teachers and administrators

Professional Help for Teens with Negative Body Image

Poor body image can wreak havoc on a teen’s self-esteem, happiness, and overall mood. When a teen experiences persistent negative thoughts and feelings towards their body, it can result in depression, anxiety, decreased performance at school, decreased ability to socialize and maintain friendships, and a worsening sense of well-being. Eating disorders are among the most dangerous consequences of negative body image. Without intervention and treatment, eating disorders can cause long-term physical and psychological harm and can even be fatal. 

If you’re concerned about the effects of body image disturbance on your teen’s mental health and eating habits, professional treatment might be necessary to help them cope and recover. 

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP)

An IOP program offers 3 hours of eating disorder support 3-5 days per week. This is a great option for teens who need more help than weekly therapy appointments but want to continue to go to school and live at home. 

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP)

PHP is a good option for those who need intensive eating disorder treatment but want to continue living at home with their families. This is a day program that helps teens transition from a highly structured residential treatment setting into a lower level of care. For those traveling to Aster Springs for treatment, there are several housing options available for PHP clients. 

Residential Programs

Our residential treatment programs offer teens 24/7 support in their recovery. The structure of Aster Springs’ residential programs minimizes distractions and barriers during treatment, allowing clients to focus entirely on healing and addressing the challenges of their illness.

Each of these treatment options provides adolescent clients with individualized care for their unique needs. To learn more about Aster Springs Eating Disorder Treatment, find a location near you


  1. https://mottpoll.org/sites/default/files/documents/091922_BodyImage.pdf 
  2. Fortes, Leonardo de Sousa, et al. “Risk Behaviors for Eating Disorder: Factors Associated in Adolescent Students.” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, vol. 35, no. 4, Dec. 2013, pp. 279–286, https://doi.org/10.1590/2237-6089-2012-0055. 
  3. Glashouwer, Klaske A., et al. “The Role of Body Image Disturbance in the Onset, Maintenance, and Relapse of Anorexia Nervosa: A Systematic Review.” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 74, Dec. 2019, p. 101771, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2019.101771.


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