How can we empower young people to have a positive body image?

Statutory guidance for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), Relationships Education and Health Education, which comes into effect in September 2020, covers broad areas of particular relevance and concern to young people today.


This will ensure that every child is guaranteed a PSHE education that covers learning about safe, healthy relationships (including understanding consent and negotiating life online), physical health (including healthy lifestyles and first aid), and mental health and wellbeing. The latter comes under the spotlight this month with Mental Health Awareness Week taking place from 13th-19th May. The theme for 2019 is Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies, issues which can affect all of us at any age.


A positive body image supports mental and physical health. It can boost confidence and help children develop a healthy image of themselves. A negative body image or body dissatisfaction can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and poor self-perception. It can also affect learning, participation and school achievement, lead to unhealthy eating practices and ultimately increase the risk of developing eating disorders in later life. For young children, attitudes about body shape and size can start as early as three or four years old, when they are already becoming aware of societal pressures to look a certain way, and for older children conversations and images shared on social media can be especially harmful.

Schools have an important role in creating an environment where everyone feels special and valued for qualities, talents and skills unrelated to appearance; where children can develop a positive body image for themselves as well as a healthy relationship with food. Starting early by promoting a healthy sense of self-worth and positive attitudes to body image is thought to help avoid later problems, and this is reflected in our 1decision PSHE learning resources.


We seek to improve body confidence by teaching children to celebrate diversity and difference, valuing each child’s strengths and abilities and being happy and proud with who they are and how they look. Exploring what it feels to be healthy, rather than what it looks like, and encouraging healthy food choices is also a big part of what we do. We also discuss social media, especially how it can mould attitudes about how children look and encourage them to seek and earn approval based on their appearance.


All children can benefit from schools delivering good-quality teaching programmes supporting children’s social and emotional skills, promoting self-esteem, confidence and resilience. Such programmes can also help encourage and nurture attitudes such as tolerance, empathy, kindness and respect for peers and others; qualities that can then help buffer children against unhelpful body image messages and also prevent bullying.

Positive body image is important. There are lots of statistics out there but we know that the number of boys being treated in hospital for eating disorders is at a record high – rising from nearly 235 in 2010 to 466 in 2018 in England, Scotland and Wales according to NHS Digital – and around 2,000 body image counselling sessions are delivered by Childline to girls every year. Education is absolutely critical and we have to equip children with the right knowledge from an early age to ensure a more positive outlook.

Hayley Sherwood is creator of 1decision, part of Headway learning resources

7th May 2019

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