Tackling body image as part of RSE and health education

Written by: Lesley de Meza | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are concerns that 24/7 life in the digital world is causing substantial harm to young minds, not least when it comes to body image. Lesley de Meza considers the research and urges schools to tackle the issue as part of statutory RSE and health education from this September


From September 2020, all schools are required to teach students about relationships and health, including the impact of unhealthy or obsessive comparisons with others*.

Body image is the image we have in our heads of how we look (in terms of our appearance, our shape, our size), and how it makes us feel – positive or negative. If we do not like our bodies – which seems to be the case for many young people today – it can have a negative impact on our self-perception and self-esteem...


Body image: A worrying national picture

The research in this area is worrying. A recent poll of 14 to 24-year-olds carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement found that Instagram ranked the worst for negatively impacting on young people’s mental health (RSPH, 2017).

Following the findings, Shirley Cramer, RSPH chief executive, said: “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.

“Through our Young Health Movement, young people have told us that social media has had both a positive and negative impact on their mental health. It is interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing – both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

Another study asked children how they felt about their own body measurements (much too thin/a bit too thin/about the right size/a bit too fat/much too fat). More than half (60 per cent) of young people reported that their body was “about the right size”. However, the likelihood of believing your body is the “right size” decreased with age in girls (Brooks et al, 2020).

The study found that across all age groups, 15-year-old girls were less likely to report their body to be the right size.

However, more positively, there has been an increase in young people reporting that their body is “about the right size” since 2014, which is encouraging (60 per cent in 2018 vs 56 per cent in 2014).

Elsewhere, leading UK psychiatrists have recently called on tech companies to hand over their data so they can fund research into better understanding the risks and benefits of social media use on children’s mental health – this is important because worries about body image can quickly lead to poor mental health outcomes (Royal College of Psychiatrists. 2020).


An unobtainable view of beauty

It is clear that many societies have different ideas of beauty that most people cannot live up to. However, if an individual feels worthless or ashamed because of their appearance, this can seriously damage their mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing.

Research from the Body Confidence Progress report shows that 87 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 think women are judged more on their appearance than their ability, while one in five primary-age girls say they have been on a diet (Government Equalities Office, 2015). There is a need for robust PSHE teaching in schools, to help address such negativity.

The Children’s Society warned in its Good Childhood report (2018), that the impact of negative body image can be long lasting and has an adverse effect on child development, leading to lower aspirations in school.

It can also contribute to risky behaviours such as drug and alcohol misuse or unsafe sex, and can lead to eating disorders, self-harm and poor mental health.

Arguably, there has never been as much pressure as there is today to conform to a particular way of looking. Even for those young people who do not feel this social pressure, it is almost impossible to disregard media representations of the “perfect” body, which bombard social media, magazines, films, television, newspapers and advertising.

Recent research from NHS Digital found that hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen by more than a third (37 per cent) across all age groups, with the most common age for patients with anorexia being 13 to 15 (NHS, 2019).

Although body confidence issues seem more prominent among women and girls, the NHS Digital research shows that boys feel a similar pressure, with data revealing a rise in the number of boys admitted to hospital for eating disorders in England, Scotland and Wales. The increase in 2018 was almost double that of 2010, and for the first time increased at a faster rate than for girls.


What role can schools play?

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, concedes that while social media plays a role in unhappiness, it has many benefits, too. He believes that young people need to be taught how to cope with all aspects of it – both the positives and negatives – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world.

According to the statutory guidance for relationships education (primary), relationships and sex education (secondary), and health education (both), young people should be supported to know and understand the similarities and differences between the online world and physical world (DfE, 2019).

Young people should also, it says, be aware that obsessively comparing themselves to others online not only sets unrealistic body image expectations, but can trigger unhealthy thoughts and habits.

Aspects of the new curriculum statutory guidance that could relate to social media use and specifically to issues of body image include mental wellbeing, internet safety and harms, online relationships, being safe, social media anxiety, media literacy and personal safety and responsibility.

Within internet safety and harms, the curriculum says that by the end of secondary schools, pupils must have been taught about “the impact of unhealthy or obsessive comparison with others online, including through setting unrealistic expectations for body image, how people may curate a specific image of their life online, and over-reliance on online relationships including social media”.

Ultimately, teaching about body image can provide students the opportunity to explore and reflect on this topic and its implications. Hopefully this can help to change attitudes and improve confidence.

When broaching the topic of body image in the classroom, I have found Public Health England’s Rise Above for Schools resources (recommended by the PSHE Association) very useful, as they help teachers discuss sensitive topics with pupils in a mindful, open and age-appropriate way.

  • Lesley de Meza is known internationally for her PSHE practice, specialising in education about sex, relationships, drugs and emotional wellbeing. As well as schools and universities, she has worked with the Department for Education, Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office.

* In light of the coronavirus lockdown, schools have now been given until the summer term 2020/21 to begin teaching statutory relationships and health education (primary) and relationships, sex and health education (secondary) after it becomes compulsory from September 2020.

Further information & resources

  • Brooks et al: HBSC England National Report: Findings from the 2018 HBSC study for England, University of Hertfordshire, January 2020: http://bit.ly/3d4lhTW
  • Children’s Society: Good children report, October 2018: http://bit.ly/33toV5A
  • DfE: Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2kQwtgL
  • Government Equalities Office: Body Confidence Progress Report 2015, March 2015: http://bit.ly/2UdkeIL
  • NHS Digital: Hospital admissions for eating disorders, October 2019: http://bit.ly/2UaRiBf
  • Public Health England: Rise Above for Schools is a programme that covers a range of topics, including body image in a digital world, online stress and fear of missing out. Its recent resource offers a social media lesson plan for year 6 and key stages 3 and 4 focusing on positive online and offline behaviours: https://campaignresources.phe.gov.uk/schools/topics/rise-above/overview
  • RCP: Technology use and the mental health of children and young people, January 2020: http://bit.ly/2G3Sn7k
  • RSPH: #Statusofmind: social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, SCIE, 2017: http://bit.ly/2Qo40LH


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