Body image and self-esteem

Written by: Dr Melissa Atkinson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Drawing on her research into interventions around issues including self-esteem and body image, Dr Melissa Atkinson answers questions on the best approaches and offers some practical tips

Q: Are we doing enough in schools to educate young people about body confidence and self-esteem?

Not yet. Education around body image is still an optional topic in schools, usually only instigated by teachers with a personal interest or when an issue presents itself. Therefore we need body image education to become a higher priority within schools, communities and government in order to encourage a systematic approach. Teachers also often feel ill-equipped to deal with these issues in the classroom, and so it’s vital that we provide schools and teachers with appropriate evidence-based resources to support effective intervention.

Q: What are the benefits of educating young people about topics such as self-esteem, mindfulness and social media literacy?

Explicit teaching on this subject helps young people build their self-confidence, providing them with new tools to respond to adversity. For example, improved media literacy enables young people to critically analyse the messages that are promoted in the media, and therefore reduces the amount they “buy in” and any resulting dissatisfaction. I believe it’s vital that we teach such skills at a young age: it’s already a time of key learning and a critical period to intervene before significant health and wellbeing issues set in.

Q: What are the links, if any, between academic achievement, poor body confidence and self-esteem?

Research shows that young people with body image concerns are less likely to participate in class and more likely to skip school. Problems with nutrition, dieting and mental preoccupation with appearance also negatively impact on attention and concentration, as well as other cognitive abilities. These findings clearly illustrate the academic repercussions of body confidence and self-esteem issues.

Q: What’s your experience of the difference between boys and girls when it comes to body image?

Generally, girls tend to report more body image concerns than boys. However, this may be due to the kinds of assessments that have traditionally been used, as they were often more relevant to girls’ concerns. There’s an important difference in the concerns that boys and girls express, for example girls tend to focus on weight loss while boys tend to focus on body shape and increasing muscles.

Q: If parents or teachers have concerns about a child’s emotional and mental wellbeing, what should be their first course of action?

In general, the first course of action for a particular concern should be to contact the school counsellor or nurse, if one exists, or have the parent contact their GP. Appropriate referrals to additional support services can then be made if necessary.

Q: What more can schools do to create a culture and environment that helps to improve pupils’ health and wellbeing?

I would encourage schools to conduct an interactive evidence-based body image programme in the classroom, particularly one that involves media literacy. Adopting this as a regular part of the curriculum will help ensure students lead that shift in environment. At the same time, schools can shift the culture by promoting avoidance of appearance-based teasing and conversations among both students and staff, while encouraging positive actions that promote diversity and acceptance.

Body confidence: Practical tips

Here are 10 practical tips to consider when planning lessons around self-esteem and body confidence (as provided by teacher training materials in the freely available Dove Self-Esteem Project).

  1. Check school policies and procedures: before teaching a lesson on self-esteem, it’s important to check school policy and procedure. Familiarise yourself with this information, incorporate it into your lesson plan and provide students with relevant guidance. It may be that school procedure needs to be updated.
  2. Ask pupils beforehand: it can be beneficial to include pupils when planning these lessons – anonymously asking them what they would like to explore may throw up unexpected issues and helps to engage them during classes.
  3. Set clear ground rules: these are the building blocks for an open discussion. Pupils should feel confident that the conversation will not leave the room, that they have a right to not answer certain questions, and that the language of others will be fairly measured.
  4. Tread carefully with imagery: images can convey a powerful message, but avoid using shocking images as this could have unintended consequences. Avoid depicting only one gender, body type, ethnicity or lifestyle. Images of models and celebrities do not necessarily send a clear message.
  5. Use language carefully: both pupils and teachers can be guilty of slipping into inaccurate or offensive language. Slang should be avoided as it can often be found to be offensive. Advise pupils to ask if they are unsure about the meaning of certain words.
  6. Avoid weight stigmatisation: it’s advisable to avoid activities that ask pupils to discuss their own body shape or the appearance of others in the room. Remember that weight stigmatisation affects those both under and overweight. Be aware of other obesity and healthy eating initiatives running concurrently within the school.
  7. Give a variety of new activities: as it’s beneficial to generate conversation between students, a variety of activities in differing group sizes may include small team debates, group research and presentation, free drawing sheets and conversation rounds, where each pupil has a chance to contribute.
  8. Using visitors to support body image teaching: external guests can provide a fresh voice, but it has been found that some external experts have inadvertently glamorised or “instructed” on negative behaviours. National subject body, the PSHE Association, recommends B-eat Ambassadors (B-eat is a charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders) and has also accredited the workshop tour of Dove’s Self-Esteem Project.
  9. Work with parents: it’s important to share best practice with parents, who are often keen to learn more. You may want to include a session on self-esteem in existing parent programmes, or share information via regular school communications.
  10. It’s never too early to start: patterns of self-esteem start very early in life. Once you reach early adulthood, it’s much harder to change your outlook. Healthy self-esteem requires a good balance, so it’s never too early to start developing awareness and understanding about the importance of self-esteem.
  • Dr Melissa Atkinson is a research fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England. She has been involved in consulting for the government’s body image teaching framework and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of a range of educational tools provided by the Dove Self-Esteem Project.

Information and resources

  • The PSHE Association launched a new character education toolkit in July. This supports PSHE practitioners when integrating character education and is available for free download by PSHE Association members:
  • The Dove Self-Esteem Project provides free resources for two to five class sessions and suitable for key stages 2 to 4. You can also sign up for a free Dove workshop:
  • The Be Real campaign is a national movement of individuals, schools, charities and others providing resources, videos and advocacy relating to body image and self-esteem:
  • B-eat:


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