Background notes


Body image



We live in a world that sends us all sorts of messages about the ‘perfect’ body. We are constantly receiving image-related messages from different mediums, both within the media and our surrounding environments, indicating what society views as ‘beautiful’. It is not surprising then, that instead of embracing and celebrating diversity in all body types, we end up focusing on what can be dangerous and often physically unattainable perfection. The other reality is that these ‘perfect’ images to which too many aspire are typically digitally enhanced (airbrushed) and manipulated before final production. They are not true or real images.

Body image refers to how you see yourself, how you feel about the way you look and how you think others perceive you. The reality is that both males and females come in all different shapes and sizes, therefore it is unrealistic to represent only one body type as beautiful. Research suggests that less than a quarter of Australian girls and a third of Australian boys are satisfied with their weight1.

With the level of physical and emotional changes occurring during puberty, it is normal for youth to be more self-aware. Body image was identified as one of the three top concerns identified by young people in Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 20152, with concerns considerably higher among females than males.

However, males are increasingly feeling the pressure to maintain or achieve high levels of fitness and physical perfection. The sporting club change rooms and time at the beach, or intimate experiences, can be intimidating for young men.

Tips for young people to help build their self-esteem and body confidence:

  • During puberty, you will notice your body beginning to change, and perhaps become more aware of the way your body looks; this is completely normal. If you are feeling really worried about something in particular, don’t be afraid to talk and ask questions about your concerns with someone you trust.

  • It can be self-destructive and lead to feelings of being ashamed of your body by comparing yourself to images you see in the media. It's important to keep in mind that the images you see are most likely to have been digitally enhanced. Highly stylised pictures of celebrities and models are unrealistic and unattainable.

  • When observing images in the media that focus on ways to alter appearance, instead of picking apart your own appearance, it's more useful to think about what the image might be trying to sell. Sit down with the family photo album and look at your family members at different ages and stages. You may notice that you have similar body traits to other family members. You might like to talk to someone about your body and how it relates to other body types in your family.

  • Have fun finding your own style. Search out the clothes that make you feel good and fit properly.

  • Fashions can come and go quickly. It's fun to experiment with clothes and makeup, but don’t let it rule your life.

  • Try to look at yourself in the mirror with an uncritical eye, as if you were your best (very supportive and loving!) friend.

  • When the focus is only on the external appearance, it is hard to embrace the many qualities that make a human being attractive. Think about the unique (internal) attributes you have that make you special.

  • Ultimately, feeling good about yourself can only come from one place - inside.

Body image and the media

The media provide a necessary and valuable community service, however, unrealistic and stereotypical images of the 'perfect' body type are also common across many forms of media and advertising, including social media. Young people are more exposed to such images as a result of greater access to technology. It is important for parents and young people to think critically about the images they see in the media and understand that they may have been manipulated and are not necessarily achievable.

Mass communication media also reinforces the many gender role expectations of society and often inaccurately portrays these gender roles. Gender role stereotypes that exist in society are often insulting and discriminatory. Some of these include:

  • Men are sexual initiators and aggressors while women submit.

  • A man’s aggressive nature does not allow him to be sensitive to, or to respect, a woman’s sexual attitudes or needs.

  • Men do not need affection, touch or comfort from others and should not offer it to anyone other than their sexual partner.

  • Women assess themselves by their appearance and men assess themselves by how they perform. Men are not interested in their own appearance.

  • Once a man is sexually aroused he cannot control his arousal.

  • In a sexual relationship, the woman should take contraceptive precautions.

  • Men do not express feelings verbally but can express them through violence.

Eating disorders

As already outlined, it is normal that some people might not always feel positive about their body shape and size, particularly when their body is going through a number of changes. However, for some, a preoccupation with the way their body looks can lead to severe and dangerous behaviours which can affect their quality of life; such as developing an eating disorder.

A common misconception about eating disorders is that they stem from a desire to look more beautiful. In actual fact, an eating disorder is a serious and complex mental illness that can arise out of a person's severely low self-esteem and negative view of the way their body looks. Eating disorders can affect people of any gender and age, no matter their body shape or size. The reasons behind why someone may develop an eating disorder are highly complex, there is no one single cause.

Teaching tips

Schools have a role in providing a supportive, safe and body image-friendly environment. Direct support for students about body image should be available, with a focus on building resilience towards negative body image messages, in a way that is appropriate for their age and sex3.

The National Advisory Group on Body Image’s ‘Checklist for Body Image Friendly Schools’ suggests that schools give attention to:

  • policies and guidelines which address issues related to positive body image

  • curriculum which addresses positive body image and associated issues of student wellbeing, resilience, values, healthy lives and relationships, food and nutrition

  • activities which promote body image friendly physical activity

  • policies and processes which address healthy eating

  • policies and processes which support values such as honesty, respect, empathy and inclusion

  • communication which encourages peers to look out for the safety and well-being of other students, with emphasis on reducing bullying and cyberbullying

  • a positive language inclusive of diversity.

Below is a summary of principles for education programs supporting positive body image4.

Essential elements for teaching about body image

  • Body image activities that meet the needs of males and females, and a variety of cultural backgrounds.

  • Activities that promote students’ self-identity and self-esteem.

  • Media literacy education that assists students in becoming more critical consumers of the media.

  • Evidence-based programs that develop positive body image.

  • Body image-friendly language that is used between teachers and students, and between students.

Approaches NOT recommended for teaching about body image

  • Using guest speakers, books, videos of those who have suffered/recovered from eating disorders.

  • Using pictures of ‘ideal’ bodies without proper media literacy education as an introduction.

  • Exploring body types using ‘ectomorph’, ‘endomorph’ and ‘mesomorph’.

  • Asking students to record food intake.

  • Weighing students.

Relevant resources


The Butterfly Foundation

The Butterfly Foundation represents all people affected by eating disorders and negative body image – a person with the illness, their family and their friends.   

SeeMe: The media, my world and me

This site promotes positive body image and tackle’s the impact of young people’s internalisation of idealised media portrayals of beauty and gender stereotypes. Includes interactive activities to use in the classroom.

The truth about body image, Kids Helpline

Completely Gorgeous

A website and classroom resource for students and teachers from upper primary school to secondary school. It includes excerpts from the book Real Gorgeous by Kaz Cooke, an animated video, and games and learning activities relating to body image.

Information for Teachers and Schools, National Eating Disorders Collaboration

Lists programs and resources available to schools for the prevention, identification, early intervention, management or care of eating disorders.

Fact sheets/booklets/videos

Body image, Get the Facts

Body image fact sheets, Butterfly Foundation

Stay Beautiful: Ugly Truth In Beauty Magazines, YouTube video

Social media can damage body image – here’s how to counteract it, The Conversation


1. Paxton, S. Research Review of Body Image Programs: An Overview of Body Image Dissatisfaction Prevention Interventions. Melbourne: Department of Human Services. 2002.

2. Mission Australia. Youth Survey 2015. Sydney, 2015.

3. National Advisory Group on Body Image. A proposed National Strategy on Body Image. Canberra: National Advisory Group on Body Image. 2009.

4. Education Services Australia. SeeMe Media Literacy Project Research and Scoping Study Report. 2011.

This Background Note relates to the following Learning Activities: