Wednesday Wisdom

May 08, 2024

Body Talk

By Dr Kathy Weston

Body Talk


Wednesday Wisdom readers are good people; loving people, who have likely attended a parenting talk once-upon-a-time, and ended up subscribing to these weekly musings because they have an appetite for learning and for research.

I am going to bet, dear reader, that you are also someone that cares deeply; about your children and the people in your life who you love. I am going to guess that you occasionally lie in bed at night worrying about these people and about the life that your children are living. I imagine that you think about how family life is going and how things could work better, that you are the kind of person that loathes unkindness, bullying or discrimination, and that you hold and model many pro-social values. I will bet that, in the past, you have raised money for charity, gone the extra mile for a friend, made financial sacrifices for others or given up your time to comfort a friend. You are a loving person, who seeks others’ happiness and wants to make the world a better place.

Now, let’s talk about the person you see in the bathroom mirror every day. How do you treat that fantastic human? Do you greet them with encouragement and kindness or with daily disdain and exasperation? Do you call them nasty names, mock their body? Remind them that they look old for their age? Perhaps you bully them about their looks and swivel your head from side to side in disgust when they peer at themselves side-on? Do you highlight their imperfections and point out their flaws? Do you sigh and throw adjectives at their image, dismantling their self-worth? Don’t you believe that they merit the same kindness, compassion, love, and acceptance that you show others? I do hope so.

As the adults in our children’s lives, we need to model the attitudes that we generally want them to adopt. When we look in the mirror (particularly in front of our kids), can we demonstrate the self-compassion and acceptance that we hope they will express towards themselves? Can we watch our own self-talk?


I was reminded of the importance of paying attention to body talk in our lives and conversations last week, when we hosted an online conference at Tooled Up on body dissatisfaction, appearance anxiety and self-esteem.

One of the stand-out talks for me was by Dr Kat Schneider, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England. She explained that ‘body talk’ refers to comments about one’s own or someone else’s appearance that suggest that there is an ideal way to look. These kinds of comments are not only limited to our own or others’ height and weight, but can include references to less obvious appearance characteristics, such as skin shade, hair texture or individual body parts. Dr Schneider gave examples such as, “I look so fat today” or, “I hate my legs. They are covered in stretch marks”. Body talk, she explained, is not limited to overtly negative comments, or even neutral ones. We can also slip into body talk when giving someone else a compliment; “Your legs look amazing!”. Either way, body talk fuels appearance scrutiny, which is unhelpful and often anxiety-inducing, and this isn’t good for anyone’s mental health.

Why does all this matter so much? Well, low body confidence and poor body image are associated with numerous negative mental and physical health consequences, including anxiety, depression and stress. It is particularly acute amongst adolescent females (hence our conference), and we also know that body dissatisfaction is one of the biggest predictors of eating disorders, so it’s something which requires our urgent attention. The good news is that body dissatisfaction is also one of the more ‘modifiable factors’, as researchers would say, so it’s something that we can potentially change or influence positively.

One action we can all take to stem the tide of body dissatisfaction is to stop caring about and commenting on our own or others’ bodies. Imagine someone looking at you and saying, “Your smile is just infectious!”, instead of, “Have you lost weight?”. It feels so much better, right?

We can all play our part by refusing to respond to body talk with reassurance and actively avoiding our instinctive response, which is often to reciprocate. For example, if someone says, “I look really fat today”, we might typically respond with comments such as: “No you don’t! You look great”. This implies that looking great and looking fat are not congruent concepts and thereby reinforces appearance ideals. There is much to think about!

The significance of Dr Scheider’s talk was in reminding listeners about the power of our words and of the need to choose them wisely. Once conscious of our own use of body talk and our judgmental scrutiny of ourselves or others, we can start to change the narrative (and the world). Let’s value body gratitude and functionality over appearance and challenge body talk in all its forms. We might only be individual people doing this in a sea of body appearance obsession, but the more we do it, and the more we model it within our own homes and our schools, the better the chance it has of becoming the new normal.


Another striking talk at our conference was delivered by Vese Aghoghovbia Aladewolu, entitled “Building a Healthy Body Image Across Cultures”. Vese is author of the award-winning children's book, Who Do I See in the Mirror? and the founder of Philly & Friends.

In her presentation, Vese highlighted the critical importance of body diversity in the media, resources, toys and books that children view and have access to. Children need to understand and celebrate the fact that people come in all shapes, sizes and skin tones. Bodies don't all look the same and nor do they all function the same. We should help children to appreciate and accept this infinite variety as early as possible. As Vese commented, hopefully early on, children can “begin to understand that there is no template of being, no one template of beauty and no one template of body.”

Vese’s own fantastic range of jigsaws, toys, dolls and books can create the sort of inclusive playroom that the world needs and that children deserve. For schools keen to promote more appearance diversity in general, The Centre for Appearance Research has a useful resource that can be downloaded here and Dr Schneider has developed the freely accessible and extremely brilliant Body Confident Sport programme in association with Dove and Nike. It is aimed primarily at girls and sport coaches, but contains numerous tools that can also be applied by teachers and parents to help raise body-confident children.

As children grow up, acquire digital technology and gain access to social media, we can help to hone their critical thinking and literacy skills. Can anyone really live a life that perfect? Is this image truly authentic or has it been doctored, filtered or enhanced? How realistic are the body types portrayed on social or print media? These are questions we might ask to get them thinking.

Can we also support them to make good decisions in the digital world? For younger adolescents in particular, the temptation to partake in social media activities that amplify the importance of appearance ideals and drive them towards validation-seeking is strong. In recent months, many concerned adults have contacted me about “Sephora kids”; tweens buying expensive and inappropriate beauty products, with many showcasing their application on social media. #Getreadywithme trends, created by adult influencers, are now the playground of the young and the playground is open for all to enter and view.

Whilst curiosity and creativity in children is something to nurture, they certainly don’t need a global audience whilst they muddle their way through early adolescence and strangers don’t need access to a child’s bedroom, bathroom or to view them applying expensive skin creams in pyjamas. This kind of play is wholly different from raiding mum’s make-up bag to try on her mascara aged nine; it can be viewed, recorded, commented on, snipped, edited and re-used elsewhere. Our children’s bodies are precious to us; adored, nurtured, perfectly imperfect and ever-changing. They should never be up for public consumption or comment.

To stem the flow and drive towards toxic online perfectionism, let’s embrace the concept of ‘good enough’ and help our children see themselves as multi-dimensional, not just a profile that someone can comment on. As adults we can start leaning into accounts and movements that challenge societal ideals of beauty in favour of a broader acceptance and appreciation of all body types, shapes, sizes and colours. The Dove Self-Esteem Project is one to follow and social media accounts promoting body positive content include @bodyposipanda, @meganjaynecrabbe, @omgkenzieee and @beauty_redefined.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

All of the talks from our Reaching Girls Early conference are now available to watch on the Tooled Up platform.

Subscribers can learn more about Dr Kat Schneider’s body confidence tools and hear more from Vese Aghoghovbia Aladewolu about building a healthy body image across cultures.

Find out more about the impact of skincare on tweens’ and teens’ mental health with consultant dermatologist, Dr Emma Wedgeworth and clinical psychologist, Dr Anna Colton. Delve further into the potential negative impact that prevailing media discourse about women’s bodies might have on girls (and importantly how to counter it) in Dr Helen Ringrow’s presentation.

Dr Josh Harwood spoke about building self-esteem in neurodiverse girls and Dr Karri Gillespie-Smith and Dr Fiona Duffy talked about the links between autism and eating disorders, providing actionable advice for anyone supporting a young person who might be struggling. Ilaria Magagnoli from Inner Wings provided numerous tips for parents and teachers to help cultivate girls' confidence and self-efficacy.

The Tooled Up platform also contains numerous other resources designed to help promote body confidence. Nudge teens to curate their social media feed in a way that helps them to feel good and reduces any negative impact using these guidelines from leading expert, Professor Tracey Wade. You might also want to try our Body Gratitude activity with your children. It’s designed to open up conversations about the things they love about their bodies and the amazing skills that our bodies enable us to do. Parents can also read our 10 top tips for promoting positive body image, watch our short video, or consider some effective strategies for tackling negative self-talk.

We’ve also put together a list of support resources for anyone with appearance concerns and gathered together some fantastic external resources that can help to boost young people’s body image.

Finally, if you are wondering when we are hosting a conference on boys’ body image, the answer is, in the autumn. In the meantime, parents of boys, please send questions that you would like answering using the support button on our site.