Body Image in Adolescent Girls: How to Build Confidence and Self-Esteem

In a world where a narrow ideal of female beauty and perfection is sensationalized in magazines, social media accounts, film, and through supermodel-esque influencers, it’s not surprising that 98% of girls feel there is immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way. Given that these impossible standards of beauty are often achieved through photoshop, plastic surgery, and unhealthy dieting and exercising habits, it’s also not surprising that 92% of teen girls would like to change something about the way they look.

This desire to change something about their physical appearance can lead adolescent girls to engage in unhealthy practices in an attempt to achieve what they believe is the ideal female beauty. The pressure to embody the media’s idea of female perfection has resulted in nearly 1 in 4 girls today falling into a clinical diagnosis of depression, eating disorders, self-harm/cutting, or an alternative mental health disorder. The prevalence of these harmful effects on young girls signals a need for parents to understand the importance of self-esteem, common body image issues, and how to best help their daughters build confidence, positive self-esteem, and healthy body image.

What is self-esteem in teens and why does it matter?

Self-esteem refers to how one feels about herself, and also how one thinks others feel about her. Questions such as do others like me, do others value the things I have to offer, and do I like myself, tie directly into a person’s concept of self-esteem. Having positive self-esteem is known to have many positive effects on teens such as allowing them to try new things, take healthy risks, and solve problems. Teens with high self-esteem are more likely to display positive behavioral characteristics such as acting independent and mature, taking pride in accomplishments, accepting frustrations, and helping others when possible.

A survey of 90,000 students found that teens with higher self-esteem were better able to deal with the emotional stressors of adolescence and that these individuals also had greater success later on in life because good grades and confidence allowed them to pursue future higher learning and employment opportunities. Self-esteem also directly impacts adolescent decision making with research showing that girls who engage in unsafe sex practices and subsequently have unplanned pregnancies have significantly lower self-esteem than those teen girls who do not. Beyond teen pregnancy, teens with lower self-esteem are more likely to engage in other risky behaviors such as the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. Teens with low self-esteem are also more likely to have relationship troubles, negative moods, low motivation, and poor body image.

There are many factors that can contribute to adolescent girls developing low self-esteem. The most common causes of low self-esteem in teens are unsupportive parents, friends who are bad influences, stressful life events such as divorce or moving, trauma or abuse, poor academic performance, mood disorders such as depression or anxiety, bullying, or ongoing medical issues.

Peers are one of the biggest factors that impact a teen’s development of their self-esteem. If your daughter has friends that are constantly making fun of her, putting her down, or making her feel like an outcast, this will have a direct negative impact on self-esteem formation. Parents are also a major source of self-esteem development. Even if done unintentionally, constant criticism or pressure to live up to high expectations can cause teens to feel unvalued and undeserving of love. Lastly, perception of their own appearance can dictate levels of self-esteem. Teens who feel unhappy with or a desire to change their appearance to meet certain standards are contributing to negative self-esteem through poor self-image.

Common body image issues in teens and their complications

Body image, not to be conflated with self-esteem, is a subsection of self-esteem that can be defined as one’s thoughts, perceptions, and attitudes about their physical appearance. Rather than how one views herself as a whole, body image relates to how she sees herself and feels about her body when she looks in the mirror.

Positive body image is a clear, true perception of one’s shape and appearance, and allows teens to see various parts of their bodies as they really are. Body positivity relates to feeling comfortable and confident in one’s body, accepting one’s natural shape, and realizing that physical appearance means very little about one’s value as a person.

Negative body image involves a distorted view or perception of one’s body or shape, which can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety, guilt, and self-consciousness. If a girl is suffering from poor body image she can feel as though her body is flawed in comparison to others and that her body is directly related to her value as a person. Teens with negative body image are more likely to develop a range of conditions such as depression, isolation, and eating disorders.

Your child’s development of body image is impacted by a range of factors including family environment, the attitude of peers, social media, cultural background, and puberty. If you worry your teen may be struggling with negative body image the signs to look out for are criticizing her body, continually comparing her looks to others, avoiding social situations, not trying new activities because of the way she looks, obsessing about losing weight or fixating on certain parts of her body, spending excessive time in front of the mirror, and expressing a link between eating and guilt.

For teen girls struggling with low body image, depression is often an associated complication. A 2020 study showed that teenage girls assessed at the ages of 14 and 18 that were dissatisfied with their weight or body image were significantly more likely to show moderate to severe depressive symptoms than those teens satisfied with their bodies. Another associated issue linked to poor body image is the development of an eating disorder. Adolescent girls who are disproportionately influenced by their body shape and weight are also more likely to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Because of the detrimental effects that low self-esteem and body image can have on teenage girls, it’s important to employ strategies that can help your teen build positive self-esteem and develop confidence in herself.

How you can help your daughter build confidence, self-esteem, and positive body image

Parents can have a huge impact on their daughter’s self-esteem and body image formation. Try some of these tips to help boost your daughter’s confidence:

1. Model body acceptance – Moms have an especially big impact on their daughter’s body image formation. Try to avoid saying things around her such as “Do these jeans make me look fat?” or talking about food in terms of good or bad. This also includes not trash-talking other women around your daughter, as even teasing each other around food or looks can create harmful patterns. 

2. Discuss media literacy – Since media is such a powerful force in self-esteem formation, talk with your daughter about what she sees on TV, social media, and in magazines. Use these conversations to help her develop a critical eye so she can decode these messages and see through the unrealistic and artificial beauty being portrayed.

3. Encourage sports – Research has shown that girls who play at least one sport have higher self-esteem than those who do not. This is partially because girls on sports teams often look to other girls for value and assurance rather than looking to boys for validation.

4. Direct praise away from appearance – Parents should be mindful to pay compliments to their teen girls for who they are and what they do rather than what they look like. Challenge yourself to match every compliment based on appearance with at least two compliments about something non-appearance-based.

5. Discover her strengths – Help your daughter uncover her talents and passions outside of physical appearance. If she has a knack for art or a propensity for STEM, encourage her to engage in activities that can advance and develop those skills.

6. Praise effort over outcome – Failure is an essential part of life and provides numerous learning opportunities, so work on complimenting your daughter on the effort she puts into developing new skills. Learning to tolerate failure can help build resilience and confidence in one’s abilities.

7. Let her know your love is unconditional – Make it clear to your daughter that you love her no matter how her appearance may change and that your love is based on the wonderful person she is on the inside. Even though teens rely heavily on feedback from peers, parents’ approval and affection still matters to them.

If your daughter is struggling with low self-esteem or poor body image, Asheville Academy can help her on her journey toward developing confidence.

Asheville Academy Can Help

Asheville Academy is the leading therapeutic boarding school for girls aged 10-14. Nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina, our private 97-acre campus provides a tranquil environment where students can reflect, heal, and overcome emotional and academic challenges. Our family-focused program is uniquely designed to help younger students develop skills to expand their resiliency, manage and communicate their emotions, and strengthen their relationships with themselves and their family members. 

Our family-style community is supportive, nurturing, and close-knit. Our environment is purposely designed to provide space to develop friendships, repair relationships, and practice adaptive communications. Students heal from the inside out by developing strength, confidence, resilience, and self-worth. For more information, please call (800) 264-8709.