A photo of four girls of the tween years are sitting on a step, with just their legs showing from the knee down. They represent some of the influences on body image at that age.

Body image is the relationship you have with your body. Parents, your body image has likely changed over the years in some ways. But maybe not in others.

For tweens, body image is especially complex due to unique influences associated with age and development. Tweens are especially prone to feel self-conscious and to obsess about their appearance.

First, let’s unpack body image.

Body image includes how you think and feel about your body, and your perception of how it looks. Your body image may have little to do with your actual appearance, including your size, shape and weight. 

Just as bodies change over time, body image can too.

As an adult, have you ever joked that you would rather (fill-in-the-blank) than go back to middle school? Tween years are tough: Puberty. Peer pressure. Experimentation. Budding sexuality. Social media.

Almost as difficult as being a tween is parenting a tween.

Especially because tweens don’t know what they don’t know. Yet they think they know. And you do know.

Even though in tweens’ mind, you grew up in the Dinosaur Age. And are of course clueless. (Insert tween eyeroll here.)

Here’s a list of what influences body image for tweens:

  • Home environment
  • Parents
  • Peers
  • Social media
  • Culture and subculture
  • Abilities/disabilities
  • And everyone’s favorite, puberty
  • Direct comments/bullying/teasing
  • Menarche
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Body image influences affect tween boys too.

The most visibly obvious influence on body image for tweens is puberty.

During puberty, a tween’s body goes through lots of changes. But at the same time, fitting in and looking cool or hot become more important.

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Tweens are at greater risk of negative influences on body image if they:

  • act on pressure from family, peers or media to look a certain way
  • have a different body shape from peers or media images
  • self-objectify (Only see themselves from the ‘outside’)
  • compare themselves to others
  • have low self-esteem
  • participate in a group or sport that emphasizes a certain body type
  • have physical disabilities
  • have mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety

One of the most powerful influences on body image is comparisons.

In and of themselves, comparisons are not bad. In fact, we’re hardwired to compare ourselves to others. Our species has survived in part due to comparisons.

However, our ancestors did not have social media. Unfortunately, social media, and Instagram in particular, negatively influence a tween’s body image.

The negative impact is intense. Especially because tweens are bombarded with computer-enhanced images of bodies that are impossible to attain. The messages easily convince tweens that they’re flawed and need to improve upon their imperfections.

Parents influence tweens’ body image too.

As parents you have more influence than you may realize to help tweens with body image, no matter their size or shape.

Some of the ways you influence your tweens’ body image:

1. Role modelling. Be aware of the example you are setting.

Tweens watch you and your choices, even if they roll their eyes and seem to be annoyed most of the time. They are aware of your attitudes toward your body, even if they don’t comment. If you often criticize the size of your belly, for example, they are more likely to be critical of theirs.

2. Feedback. Be positive. Or at least neutral.

Critical remarks about your teen’s body are damaging. Comments only make them feel more down on themselves.

3. Teach media literacy.

Help tweens learn to be wise consumers of what they see and read in magazines and online. Definitely teach them about filters, photo edits and other tricks that fuel the beauty culture.

4. Emphasize interests and pursuits.

Encourage your tweens’ interests in whatever they show interest in. Maybe it is community service, music, sports, arts, or something else? Focus on their efforts rather than on the outcome.

Body image, the relationship tweens have with their body, is important. Their body image is a function of many factors. As parents, you’re among the most powerful of all influences. Keep communication open with your tweens so they can talk with you about the ups and downs in their life. Remember, your tweens are paying attention to what you say, and to what you communicate through your own behaviors and comments.

I am an anti-diet clinical psychologist in the Boston area, specializing in helping people of all ages improve their relationship with body. To learn more about how to support your tween during the turbulent tween years, please contact me.

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