Don’t judge a book by its cover

Keir McDonald MBE, MD of Educare, on how poor body image can affect young people’€™s ability to function in school

One in five primary-school-age girls say they have been on a diet. One in three adolescent boys have been on a diet to change their body shape or lose weight. Eighty-seven per cent of girls aged 11-21 think that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability. These are the findings of a recent government seminar to discuss the current state of evidence on body image.

The term body image describes how comfortable a person feels about their body, their integrated sense of body and self, and the extent to which their personal value is tied up with their physical appearance.

Evidence suggests that adolescents with poor body confidence are less likely to be physically active, less likely to eat fruit and vegetables, and more likely to try to control their weight with laxatives and vomiting. They are also more likely to partake in other risky behaviours, and there is a strong link between body image and depression and low self-esteem. Being bullied for being overweight is also very common and can badly affect people’s emotional functioning.

The consequences of poor body image also have a disturbing effect on other areas of life: 

  • 16 per cent of 15-17-year-olds have avoided going to school because they felt bad about their appearance
  • 25 per cent of girls say that unhappiness about their appearance has stopped them from putting their hand up in class
  • Almost a quarter of girls aged 7-21 do not participate in sport or exercise because they are unhappy with their body image
  • One fifth of 15-17-year-olds have avoided giving an opinion in public.

The seminar report says: “The girls who are keeping their hands down in class today will be the women not daring to ask for a pay rise tomorrow. The girls who bunk off sports because they don’t want to be seen in kit will be the women putting their health at risk by doing almost no exercise at all. And the girls who are being told their value is tied up in their physical appearance are the girls who won’t feel that anything else they could achieve is worth bothering with.”

Girls’ and boys’ poor body confidence has major implications for society now and in the future and it is the reason the government has developed a work programme on the problem. They are in talks with health and education professionals as well as high-street retailers, the media and advertisers, and it is likely there will be a range of policy initiatives to help overcome the issue on a number of levels.

Being bullied, in particular, is a major factor in depression and low self-esteem. Bullying behaviour focuses on ‘difference’ and the difference can be real or perceived – overweight, underweight, shape, shortness, tallness – with bullying, anything goes.

A recent survey of 250,000 children aged between 10 and 15 showed that nearly half have been bullied at school. And even if they had not been bullied, a quarter of the sample said they were worried about it. Today bullying does not just exist within the perimeter of the school. It can carry on day and night via mobile phones, chat rooms and social media.

Because bullying is so prevalent and has such an impact on emotional functioning, EduCare has developed a new online learning programme that focuses on the subject. ‘Preventing Bullying’ is endorsed by experts at Bullying UK and Family Lives and features four interactive modules and questionnaires which explain what bullying behaviour is and what individuals can do about it. There is also a module on good practice for organisations. It’s one of a range of online learning programmes developed by Educare, which also cover child protection, child neglect, safer recruitment, health and safety, equality and diversity.

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