Positive Body Image in the Age of Selfies and Social Media


Leonardo Rocker

Positive Body Image in the Age of Selfies and Social Media

We all want to raise confident girls who respect and feel positive about themselves. High self-esteem can aid mental health. It is linked to lower anxiety, greater resilience, better outcomes when dealing with adversity and stronger relationships (Mann, Hosman, Schaalma & De Vries, 2004). Unfortunately, however, for girls, self-esteem is often tied to their self-body image. Our culture tends to value girls by how they look instead of their achievements or successes (Tiggermann & Slater, 2013).

Link of appearance and self-esteem for girls

The link between appearance and self-esteem for girls in Western society, thinness, youth and beauty are valued attributes for girls. Think about the actresses you see on television, celebrities in magazines and models in advertising. Media portrays thinness as the ideal, and young, beautiful women are portrayed as stylish, successful, and popular. Attractiveness has become synonymous with self-worth and value.

Women and girls come in all shapes and sizes. Only 5-10% of women are in the same height and weight range as models, but thinness prevails as the ideal attractive body type.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram have lead to increased social comparison and greater body surveillance (Holland & Tiggermann, 2016). With 75% of teens having a social media profile, there is a vast public platform for self-presentation, communication, and social comparison (Tiggermann & Slater, 2013). However, girls don’t just compare themselves to realistic images of their peers; they also compare themselves to Instagram models who use filters, airbrushing and other digital enhancements (Holland & Tiggermann, 2016).

When young girls are bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards, they can internalise these standards, creating greater dissatisfaction with their own body. As a result, girls might begin to hate their bodies, develop unhealthy attitudes about food, engage in dieting, develop eating disorders, feel worthless, self-harm, avoid going to places where they might be judged based on their appearances such as the beach, or developmental health disorders such as anxiety, or depression (Tiggermann & Slater, 2013).

While body image has long been a concern for teenagers and pubescent girls, research has shown that girls as young as 6 years old are aware of their appearance and have expressed a desire for thinness (Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003). A U.S. study found that one in four children had engaged in some kind of dieting behaviour before 7 years of age (Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003). Additionally, a child’s weight is a strong predictor of self-esteem and body satisfaction (Jones, 2002).

Puberty is a particularly difficult time due to the developmental changes in girls’ bodies. Puberty brings on rapid changes in hormonal, emotional and physical development. The ideal body image or appearance is likely to be markedly different from the reality of a developing pubescent body, causing greater body dissatisfaction by comparison. As many as 75% of Australian high school girls feel fat or want to lose weight (The Butterfly Foundation, 2019).

Explaining the natural changes that occur throughout puberty can help girls accept their body and reduce pressure to look like the body images represented in the media.

Developing positive body image

Body image is shaped by socio-cultural values, role models and social comparisons (Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003). This means that family, friends and the media are important influences on a young person’s self-image.

Some do’s and don’ts (The Butterfly Foundation, 2019):

  • Don’t focus on your child’s appearance or tease them about their appearance.
  • Don’t negatively talk about your own body or focus on what you’re eating. Avoid labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or discussing diets or weight control methods.
  • Don’t comment on how people look. Watch those subtle comments, such as “You look great!...Have you lost weight?” or “That would look horrible on me.”
  • Do model healthy choices and make healthy eating and exercise a part of your daily life and routine.
  • Do model healthy attitudes about body image, accept and value people no matter how they look.
  • Do use a critical eye when looking at pictures in the media or images on social media. Explain to your child that images have been altered, filtered or air-brushed to enhance their appearance – they are not realistic representations of ideals to aspire to!
  • Do prepare children for the physical changes that come with puberty. Explain what to expect and allow your child to ask questions.
  • Do compliment your child on their non-physical attributes. Focus on their personalities or skills. Try compliments like, “You show great kindness to your friends,” or “You have a very creative imagination.”

Further Reading


Eating Disorders among Children and Young People

Supporting girls to develop positive self esteem

Self-esteem grows from a sense of accomplishment, achieving personal goals, learning new skills, receiving recognition from others and internalising positive values (Child Mind Institute, 2019).

Let’s celebrate what girls do rather than how they look. Notice and praise effort while engaging in activities like art, sport, dance, writing, maths. Encourage girls to continue their extra-curricular activities based on their strengths and interests.

Focus on personal strengths. Are they kind, smart, strong, witty, or funny?

One way to build self-esteem is to start a proud moments album. A visual record of proud moments such as photos, drawings, certificates, and positive comments from significant others can help boost self-esteem and be particularly helpful when children feel low about themselves.

Giving compliments can help boost your child’s self-esteem. For compliments to be effective, they need to be meaningful and genuine. Don’t say, “Wow, that is the best artwork I’ve ever seen!” Instead, comment on the details. For example, you could say, “the colours that you used are really beautiful.” Some children might not receive compliments well, and they might need you to tone down the compliments. Try saying, “It looks like you put in lots of effort with this artwork.” Or you can encourage self-reflection by asking questions like, “How do you feel about this artwork?” or “How did it feel to play your first game of soccer?”

Praise the effort rather than the results (Child Mind Institute, 2019). Encourage girls to try new things and praise them for their perseverance. Be specific in your praise. Positive examples include, “Great effort with goal-shooting today,” “You did so well at staying calm and not reacting,” or “Amazing drawing. I love the colours and detail.”

Set a positive example and model kind comments (Child Mind Institute, 2019). Mums, be careful not to put yourself down. Other adults in the family should also be mindful not to put other women down in front of your child. Comments such as “that outfit looks horrible” or using labels such as: “she’s so fat” can be harmful to girls listening. Instead, make an effort to comment on what other women are doing. Try “She’s inspiring because she donates her time to charities,” or “Wow, she’s worked so hard, and now she represents her country in her sport.”

Encourage girls to engage in a fun form of exercise or team sport. Exercise can improve self-esteem, help children gain a sense of mastery, improve physical strength and lead girls to feel positive about their bodies (Mann et al., 2004).

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View article references

  • References The Butterfly Foundation (2019). What is Body Image? Accessed on 15th May, 2019, from https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/understand-eating-disorders/body-image/ Child Mind Institute (2019).
  • 13 Ways to Boost Your Daughter’s Self Esteem. Accessed on 21st May, 2019, from https://childmind.org/article/13-ways-to-boost-your-daughters-self-esteem/ Holland, G., Tiggemann, M. (2016).
  • A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body image, 17, 100-110. Doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.02.008 Jones, D. C. (2002).
  • Social comparison and body image: Attractiveness comparisons to models and peers among adolescent girls and boys. Sex Roles, 45(9/10), 645–662. Doi: 10.1023/A:1014815725852 Lowes, J. Tiggemann, M. (2003).
  • Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. The British Psychological Society, 8(2), 135–147. Doi: 10.1348/135910703321649123 Mann, M. M., Hosman, C. M., Schaalma, H. P., De Vries, N. K. (2004).
  • Self-esteem in a broad-spectrum approach for mental health promotion. Health education research, 19(4), 357-372. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyg041 Tiggemann, M., Slater, A. (2013).
  • NetGirls: The Internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(6), 630-633. Doi: 10.1002/eat.22141

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