What is body image? What is self-esteem?

Body image is the mental picture you have of your body – what it looks like, what you believe about it, and how you feel about your body. Self-esteem is the “real” opinion you have of yourself. how you value and respect yourself as a person. Your self-esteem has a direct effect on how you take care of yourself, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Self-esteem and body image also exert influences on each other – it is hard to feel good about yourself if you hate your body!

What can educators do in the classroom? How can their administration support?

Research shows that it might be harmful to teach students about eating disorders. Some students might learn to glamourize disturbed eating patterns. Information must be age appropriate.

Instead, teach students about general health. This can include:

  • Healthy lifestyles (healthy eating, active living, self-acceptance)
  • Media literacy
  • Positive life skills (assertive communication, positive relationships, problem solving)
  • Ways to cope with sexual, racial or other harassment and appearance based teasing

Prevention must take place on many levels:

  • Help parents and teachers to think about their own attitudes. Their behaviour, language, eating and physical activities influence children.
  • Make time and space for meals at school. Discourage “starve-a-thons”. Set up policies that ban teasing about physical appearance or body-based bullying.
  • Empower adolescents to feel good about themselves. Start a support group.
  • Promote understanding and tolerance for natural development, including weight gain and fat among youth going through puberty.
  • Maintain consistent health promotion messages.

These ideas come from the Comprehensive Healthy Schools Prevention Programs, courtesy of the Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders.

  • Organize staff development sessions for teachers and administrators. Encourage teachers to examine their own attitudes toward physical appearance and their own body image. Highlight the importance of being role models for their students. This does not mean being “perfect”. It does mean being willing to explore and resolve difficult issues. Equip teachers with practical skills to deal with self-esteem and body image issues. Invite local agencies and/or community health organizations to lead training sessions in your school. Contact Us to connect with organizations that can lead training sessions in your school.
  • Organize a parent information session to teach parents how their attitudes affect their children’s body image. Involve parents in developing policy and curriculum. Equip parents with ideas on how to deal with self-esteem, body image issues, and problem food and weight behaviours in their children.
  • Establish an effective school-wide policy on teasing and bullying. Ensure that you include physical appearance in your anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies. Involve parents, students, teachers and school administrators in developing this policy.
  • Develop a classroom behaviour agreement with your students. Ask them each to sign the agreement, and display the terms of agreement in a place where they can all see it. Commit to respecting each other’s point of view, listening, respecting differences and challenging stereotypes.
  • Develop a school health program where students receive consistent positive messages about healthy eating attitudes and behaviours and healthy body image. Focus on health and well-being, not physical appearance. Respect the wide range of ethnic foods eaten. Involve teachers, administrators, families, community leaders and students when you develop this program. Make sure the school staff agree to treat students’ bodies respectfully and do not make comments about students’ body shapes and size.
  • Involve food services at your school. Encourage your school to provide a variety of nutritious foods to children in the cafeteria, at school activities and at fundraising events. Support every effort to promote healthy eating.
  • Learn to recognize the signs of someone at risk. Learn more about the symptoms of eating disorders here.
  • Teach critical-thinking skills to help children identify and resist cultural messages that could promote negative body image. Teachers can integrate media literacy lessons into many subjects, such as social sciences, literature, history and health. For more information see Beyond Images and Au-delà de l’image.
  • With your students, examine the images in your school. Look at posters, books, magazines or even activities that promote stereotypical representations of the ideal beautiful or healthy body. Provide children with alternative images of healthy bodies.

NEDIC’s Beyond Images is a free body image and self-esteem curriculum for grades 4-8 available for download in English and in French.

How can I work to counteract negative body image messaging?

Model a healthy lifestyle. When others see you eating well and being physically active in a normal, ongoing way, without preaching or over-emphasis, they will accept these behaviours as normal. You can be a role model to guide them.

Remind people how to identify symptoms of stress: Shallow, fast breathing; sweaty palms; racing heart; headaches or stomach-aches; a panicky sensation. Suggest things to do to calm down.

Model and teach ways to deal with stress and conflict: Deep breathing, progressive relaxation exercises, a solitary walk, quiet time alone, listening to or playing music. You can also teach ways to deal with stressful situations, such as:

  • Make a list of the things you have to do and put them in order of importance.
  • Practice talking positively to yourself to get you through the effects of a poor decision or unhappy result: it was one incident, not your whole life.
  • Keep a journal to help you understand your feelings and thoughts.
  • Think up new ways to cope and share them with others.

Help others to develop self-esteem based on qualities other than physical appearance: Comment on and affirm characteristics that are not related to someone’s body. Be specific with your compliments:

  • Encourage individuals to take ownership of their accomplishments and talents.
  • Encourage and affirm their personality traits, passions, and achievements.

Don’t ignore negative comments about physical appearance, including size, shape, cultural dress or race. Do not allow belittling remarks based on racial, sexist or other stereotypes. Use them as teachable moments without shaming anyone.

Teach critical thinking skills. Help others learn to analyze, synthesize, apply and evaluate.
Teach about aspects of self and life that one can influence, and help people feel stronger and more able to cope.

Get rid of your diet and get rid of your scale!  Listen to your body. Let it tell you how healthy you are. Remember that your weight is not a measurement of your health or self-worth. Make health and vitality your goal, not a specific weight. Learn about the Health at Every Size® philosophy.
Avoid labelling food “bad,” “sinful,” or “junk food.” Labels like this can make you feel guilty or ashamed for eating “bad food”. If we think this way, we can restrict, and then binge, on certain foods. Remember that a healthy diet includes both regularly eating nutritious food and occasionally eating less nutritious, high calorie food. Use different labels for food like “sometimes food” and “everyday food.”
Do not encourage or laugh at jokes that make fun of a person’s size or body. Find a direct and gentle way to say that a person’s worth and morality are not related to how they look.
Criticize the culture that promotes unhealthy body image, not your self. Look at how encouraging people to dislike their bodies helps to sell products. Even young children can understand this. Encourage children to question, evaluate and respond to the messages that promote unhealthy body image and low self-esteem.

Celebrate Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW) and International No Diet Day (INDD) in your community. Visit our events page to see if there are activities planned in your area.

How can parents help their families to develop healthy habits and body image?

Children develop their beliefs and behaviours from the adults that they love and respect. You can make a positive difference to the children in your life.
Teach children that their self-worth is not related to how they look. Emphasize their talents and qualities. Don’t focus on their physical appearance.
Give children healthy choices, and teach them to make informed decisions about what they eat. Involve them in planning meals, shopping and cooking.

Emphasize the positive aspects of healthy eating, rather than focusing on the effects of unhealthy eating.

Do not use food as a reward or punishment. If you use food as a reward or comfort, or if you restrict food as a punishment, you are sending the message that food leads to love and acceptance. This may encourage children to seek out food for comfort or self-punishment.

Encourage children to take responsibility for their own well-being. This will help them learn to listen to their bodies.

Remind them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

  • Remind them that the amounts they eat will vary as they grow. The amount also depends on how active they are each day.
  • Respect their choices. Do not make them finish their plate if they are full. Do not limit food if they are hungry.
  • Teach them to recognize and act on the signs of what they are feeling. For example, teach them that if they are worried their palms may sweat, their heart may race, or their stomach may hurt. To relieve the feeling they can try deep breathing, a walk, or talk about what is bothering them.

Make your family meals a peaceful time for enjoying food and talking with each other. Save arguments, TV shows, telephone calls and difficult decisions for another time.

Live with a positive attitude to body image, not with a focus on food and weight. Show how you can be happy, healthy and active at any body size. Avoid complaining about your body, particularly in front of children. Don’t talk about diets, calories and weight.

Model a healthy lifestyle.

  • Balance work and leisure time.
  • Take care of yourself. Meet your emotional, spiritual, mental and physical needs.
  • Regularly participate in exercise you enjoy. Let your child decide what physical activity they prefer. Help children be physically active by limiting TV and other inactive play. Encourage physical activities. These can be as simple as washing the car, shoveling snow or gardening.

Encourage self-awareness and critical thinking skills. These will help children evaluate new information using their own values, strengths and needs. Children who can do this are more likely to resolve their problems in healthy ways rather than by using food and weight manipulation as coping strategies.

Be aware of advertising and toys aimed at children. Notice how they reinforce gender stereotypes and body dissatisfaction. Encourage a conversation about how the child in your care views the advertisement or the toy. Foster critical thinking. and playfulness.

Work toward identifying and resisting all forms of discrimination. Remember that prejudice against size and body relates to prejudice based on gender, race, sexuality, class and physical ability.