The teenage years can be tumultuous, presenting various challenges, particularly regarding body image and sexual health. Young people are bombarded with messages about what their bodies should and shouldn’t look like, which can lead to confusion, insecurity, and negative health outcomes. 

We will delve into the ways body image influences teen sexual health, highlighting the psychological and social impacts of body perception on self-esteem and sexuality. By understanding these connections, youth-serving adults can better support teens in developing a safe, fulfilling, and confident approach to their bodies and sexuality. 

By the end of this blog, youth-serving adults will have tips for addressing body image in their education spaces. 

Understanding Body Image

Body image is a concept that was introduced by psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in 1935 as “the picture of our body which we form in our mind.” An individual’s perception of their body is significant and can sometimes be distorted, which means it may not accurately reflect how others see them or what their true appearance is. Numerous influences can affect one’s body image or self-perception.

Media, particularly social platforms like Instagram and TikTok, typically stands out to youth-serving adults as having a strong influence on body image, amongst other things. Studies, such as one by the American Psychological Association, suggest that reducing social media use by 50% for teens can lead to improved self-esteem regarding appearance and weight, even when they still use these apps on a daily basis.

Another study identified a correlation between high social media engagement and disordered eating, although causation has not been proven. The constant exposure to idealized images on social media can create unrealistic comparisons and peer-to-peer competition, both of which are strong influences on adolescent body image. Even with the rise of “body positivity” and related movements on social media, there has been an overall increase in disordered eating from 2013 to 2018.

Marginalized communities encounter additional barriers and poorer health outcomes overall, complicating efforts to foster positive body image and confidence. LGBTQ+ individuals have higher rates of disordered eating. BIPOC communities exhibit similar rates to white communities but face lower rates of diagnosis and treatment

While disordered eating is not the sole indicator of community perceptions on body image, it serves as one data point that highlights negative mental health outcomes resulting from societal pressure to be thinner or conform to certain appearances.

There is more research on the topic of body image, including a poll where two-thirds of parents said their children are self-conscious about their appearance, and that could be because of their body size, acne, hair, or some other aspects of physicality. 

Most adolescents are aware of the influence social media can have on their self-image and confidence. And, while social media often receives the most criticism for contributing to adolescent mental health issues, media platforms serve to amplify existing societal and cultural messages. 

Family dynamics and social norms further shape how young people perceive themselves and develop self-esteem. The peer-to-peer comparison is particularly powerful, and parents are an important factor in adolescent body image. Parents and caregivers can be a protective factor for teens learning to cultivate a positive relationship with their body. 

As youth-serving adults, we also play a part in developing those social and cultural norms with the young people we work with. And, as sexual health educators, we need to understand how body image fits within our role.

The Link Between Body Image and Sexual Health

Research indicates a link between individuals with a negative body image and certain sexual behaviors, such as decreased likelihood of using contraception and earlier initiation of sexual activity.

In addition to prevention goals of sex ed, we also want to promote safe, fulfilling relationships and sexual experiences. This connects back to body image as well, as one study noted that “body dissatisfaction” had a strong influence on sexual functioning, including sexual drive and satisfaction. It’s important to note that all participants in this study all identify as straight, cisgender adults; therefore it is not representative of all identities. However, there is a lot of research that shows folks of any gender can experience increased anxiety and lower satisfaction during sexual experiences, related to their body image. 

Body dissatisfaction can start at a really young age. A separate research study found that children ages 4-11 years old were already reporting a desire for thinner bodies, and correlated with parents and teachers had also expressed concern about their weight or appearance. 

Given this connection between body image and sexuality, sex educators are primed to offer education that normalizes all bodies and promotes the development of positive relationships with the self. 

Teach about Body Image in Sex Education

Everyone is receiving messages and imagery all the time in our digital world. As youth-serving adults, we can have conversations now so that the folks we work with can start to recognize how these influences impact their relationship to self and the world around them. Sexual health education is integral for social emotional wellness, and can present many opportunities for discussions related to body image.

As sex educators, we get a lot of questions from young people essentially asking “Am I normal?” Young people want to know if what they are experiencing or the way their body looks or functions is normal. They may be asking because of what they’ve seen on TV or what they’ve heard from peers. Their questions give us an opportunity to investigate the messages they are receiving. They may have seen pornography, and have questions or ideas about what sex is, how people experience it, what their body should like, or how bodies should respond during sexual experiences. 

If you are a youth-serving adult teaching sex ed, there are many topics and interventions that we can bring to education spaces to support these conversations.

  • We can think critically about the images we use in our educational content and ensure that any visuals of people represent a diverse population, inclusive of body size, race/ethnicity, gender, and ability. 
  • During topics like puberty or anatomy, we can discuss and normalize acne, body odor, body hair. 
  • Make sure to name that everyone’s reproductive and sexual anatomy – just like other parts of their body – all look different. Penises might be circumcised or uncircumcised and have variation in length and width. Vulvas can have variation in color and every person’s labia look different as well. Breasts and chests can be different shapes and sizes, even on the same person. 
  • Written content like stories and scenarios should also have a variety of perspectives and identities. Even names should be representative of different cultures and genders, and include a variety of pronouns. 
  • Center LGBTQ+ identities, families, and relationships, instead of focusing only on cisgender, hetronormative relationships in our lessons.
  • Include topics specifically dedicated to digital literacy, body image, self-esteem, and confidence. Porn Literacy means thinking critically about porn’s influence on how people think and feel, particularly about sex and their bodies.
  • Learn about the apps and the media that our students and young adults engage to ensure our content is relevant.
  • We should always be careful about the language we use and avoid anything that could be seen as shaming or stigmatizing anyone’s body, including our own. Be careful about labeling food as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” talking about dieting, or weight loss. 
  • We can also do our part to normalize aging! If adults speak of themselves as elderly or mention our wrinkles or gray hair disparagingly, we reinforce the cultural belief that aging is something undesirable.
  • Include topics on communication skills and characteristics of safe, fulfilling relationships. Every person and every person’s body deserves respect. It is never okay for anyone to make someone feel bad about their body or physical appearance.

Facilitating discussions on body diversity, media influence, and self-esteem can help young people develop a more positive relationship with their bodies and a more confident approach to sexuality.  With these strategies, youth-serving adults can make a significant impact, guiding teens toward a safe, fulfilling, and respectful understanding of themselves and others.