There is a lot of talk these days about how children's health is affected by their weight, eating behaviour and activity level. At the same time, many children are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a positive body image and to feel good about themselves. In this article we explore some of the complexities surrounding weight, body image and self-esteem.
What Are Body Image and Self-Esteem?
Many factors, including weight, can influence body image and self-esteem and, in turn, our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. We know body image and self-esteem can influence our thoughts and activities, but what do these terms really mean? The National Eating Disorder Information Centre provides the following definitions:
Body image includes "our beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes towards our bodies and body parts. Body image includes more than just the way we feel about our weight or shape. It includes how we feel about our many physical features (e.g., weight, height, facial features, colour, physical maturation) and abilities" (1).
Self-esteem is "the degree to which you like or approve of yourself in general. Self-esteem affects how you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually" (1).
Much of a child's body image and self-esteem are formed at school. For children, every interaction, whether it is during formal learning in the classroom, while eating snacks and lunches or while playing with friends, is an opportunity to learn about the world around them and how they fit into it. In today's culture, where there seems to be an increasing focus on children's weight, these interactions can be heavily influenced by students feeling more aware of and negative about their bodies and their weight. When children focus on their weight, eating habits or activity behaviour as a way to manage weight, they can develop confusing emotions and unrealistic expectations, leading to feelings of failure and frustration. These feelings can negatively affect children's body image and self-esteem, which can, in turn, negatively influence how they take care of themselves.
To support a body-positive school environment that nurtures and builds self-esteem among all students, it can be helpful to consider and challenge assumptions about the many factors that influence body weight and try to move away from a focus on weight and instead focus on well-being for everyone.
Weight and Health
The relationship between weight and health is complex. Many factors can influence a person's health, regardless of their weight, and so weight alone is not a reliable measure of health. A person's weight at a single point in time does not always indicate whether they are healthy, eating well or being active (2). Instead of focusing on weight, focusing on health and well-being will help children of all sizes feel celebrated as they are supported in eating well and being active in their own unique ways.
Determinants of weight
Weight is a lot more complicated than the balance between calories in and calories out (or how much we eat and how active we are). The Public Health Agency of Canada describes obesity as a complex phenomenon involving a wide and interactive range of behavioural, biological, environmental and societal factors (3). Health research has shown that biology, sleep, stress, mental and other illnesses, socio-economic status and other factors contribute to the development and maintenance of obesity in ways we are only beginning to understand. Here are two examples of this complexity:
There is evidence that weight stigma, or worrying about what people think of your weight, can cause physiological changes that may contribute to weight gain (4).
It has been suggested that social factors, such as income, affect obesity even after taking into account more direct health behaviours such as inactivity (4).
When considering children's body weight, it is important to remember that there is no simple solution; the determinants of weight are complex and not well understood. We still have a lot to learn.
Weight preoccupation and children
The growing cultural preoccupation with the weights of young people is troublesome: research shows that children who receive negative feedback about their weight are more likely to develop a negative body image, engage in unhealthy eating practices that negatively affect nutrition, feel incapable academically or physically, withdraw from social activities and feel flawed overall (1, 2). These feelings can lead to a preoccupation with food, weight or body image that interferes with their performance at school and with their health (1, 2). Once children become aware of the emphasis placed on weight in our culture, bullying may also become an issue. Physical appearance, especially weight, is a frequent target for teasing at school.1 More than half of children report being involved in appearance-based bullying (1).
Both boys and girls are troubled about their body size and eating, and weight-related problems are being identified at earlier ages (2). For example, despite being within what is considered a healthy weight range, 30% of Canadian girls and 25% of boys between the ages of 10 and 14 years engage in restrictive dieting (2). Children engaged in restrictive dieting do not get the nutrients required for their developmental stage and are at three times greater risk for obesity than children who do not diet (1, 2). This disordered eating can have a profound and lasting negative influence on their health, self-esteem and future success (1). Consequently, shifting the focus away from bodies and weight and toward supporting well-nourished and active children with positive self-esteem and life skills is key.
Supporting a Positive Body Image for Students
Given the complexity surrounding the determinants of body weight, the complex relationship between weight and health and the negative outcomes that may occur when children feel bad about their weight, it is challenging to figure out how to support children's well-being.
In a climate of weight preoccupation that can challenge children's body images and their sense of worth, teachers have an opportunity to take a different direction and instead contribute to their students' development as happy, nourished, active and resilient children.
Want to learn more about helping your students eat healthy and stay active? Visit and sign up for their electronic newsletter to keep you up to date on relevant nutrition news and events and provide tips and activity ideas to help you promote health in your classroom and school. Geared to elementary school teachers, this informative newsletter is written by Registered Dietitians and teachers.
©Dairy Farmers of Canada, teachnutrition.org/Ontario, 2014.
1 National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Beyond images: a self-esteem and body image curriculum: backgrounder and tip sheets for teachers: grades 4-6, 2013.http://www.beyondimages.ca/sites/default/files/beyond-images-backgrounder4-6.pdf.
2 Sharma A. Dr. Sharma's obesity notes: quality of life in obesity is determined by health, not size, Jan. 2014.http://www.drsharma.ca/quality-of-life-in-obesity-is-determined-by-health-status-and-not-size.html.
3 Public Health Agency of Canada. Obesity in Canada: determinants and contributing factors, 2011.http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-ps/hl-mvs/oic-oac/determ-eng.php.
4 Schvey NA et al. The stress of stigma: exploring the effect of weight stigma on cortisol reactivity.Psychosomatic Medicine. 2014 Jan 16. [Epub ahead of print].http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/bias/Physiological_Stress_Stigma_PsychosomaticMed_1.14.pdf.
5 Satter E. Your child's weight: helping without harming. Absolute Advantage 2006;5(3):14-17.http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/cms-assets/documents/99558-588624.ycwhwh.pdf.