Social work conversations

Conversations about body image

By Andrew Pirie

As young people are more affected by issues related to body image than ever before, we explore how social workers can initiate conversations and encourage young people to change the way that they feel about their bodies. Lisa Fathers, Director of Teaching School and Partnerships at Alliance for Learning which is part of Bright Futures Educational Trust, and a national Mental Health First Aid trainer, offers her insights into how social workers can approach the topic of body positivity with young people.

Body image is our perception of our appearance. It’s based on how we see ourselves and how we think other people see us. The two things are often very different. Positive and negative experiences and relationships can affect body image and as social workers you may be supporting young people with a range of mental health issues, some undoubtedly linked to this topic. 

Body image matters because it is tied to self-worth and identity. How you see yourself, the world and your place in it affects the choices you make, the confidence which allows you to take risks and who you choose to spend your time with. If you do not feel acceptance of your own body image and identity, you may seek short-term friends or even make bad choices. 

In an education setting we regularly see instances of low self-esteem, lack of confidence and more complex matters tied to the subject of body image. While our goal is to offer opportunities and education to every child, I believe anyone working with young people has a duty to inspire them to discover and achieve things beyond the opportunities that they can see now. 

In the last issue of Social Work News magazine, BBC journalist, Ashley John-Baptiste, commented on what’s most important to him as someone who grew up in the care system. He believes that every single person leaving the care system should have a high sense of self-worth. I agree - every child should be supported to understand the concept of self-esteem and their self-confidence should be nurtured.

If you are working with young people who may need support in this area, these top tips we offer can help: 

Positive self-talk and self-acceptance is key. 

Adopting this attitude yourself and encouraging others to do the same is really important. This means not making comparisons to others and accepting who we are.

Focus on personal qualities and efforts that have nothing to do with physical appearance. 

Every individual has a gift or a passion for something. Nurture the thing they enjoy doing. Doing what you love creates a sense of self and is important to help develop positive self image-based values.

Emphasising health over looks is important. 

Don’t put a lot of emphasis on physical appearance and instead, talk about all the different aspects that make up a person. For example personality, skills and a their outlook on life.

When you witness negative body image messages, talk about them openly. 

Observe pop culture, media and sports and have conversations about messages conveyed around beauty, gender roles and health, recognising when images may have been altered or airbrushed.

A strong sense of identity and self-worth are vital for a young person’s self-esteem.

Sport, PE and physical activity really help to build this along with encouraging them to be able to express their feelings, problem solve and come up with their own coping strategies for setbacks. This will build confidence and improve resilience.

If a young person is affected by peer pressure, bullying, or is self-conscious about their body image, it might help to talk to their school or college. 

Schools can be a positive environment for fostering healthy body image and self-esteem and should have policies in place to deal with these issues."

Mental health first aid training may help you identify when a young person is struggling with their body image. Find out how you can improve your skills at allianceforlearning.co.uk/cpd/mental-health-first-aid