A Peer Reviewed Journal

Volume 2, Number 2

March 12, 2001

© 2001 Kelly Small and EGallery

EGallery grants reproduction rights for noncommercial educational purposes with the provision that full acknowledgment of the source is noted on each copy.

Addressing Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Eating Disorders

Semester II Independent Inquiry

By Kelly Small

For Michelle Vanden Berg

"To lose confidence in one's body is to lose confidence in oneself."
- Simone De Beauvoir

Self-image is inextricably linked to body image, especially for young females. In her book, Reviving Ophelia - Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Pipher (1994) describes and explains the convoluted issues that girls battle during adolescence, including the ability to conform to a media-driven ideal of beauty. In response to Pipher (1994), Shandler (1999) collected writing from girls who deal with issues identified in her book, Ophelia Speaks - Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self. The submissions are not easy to read. The first section, The Body Under Assault, gives voice to girls’ extremely negative body images. Also described are the self-abusive ways girls often deal with these negative feelings, from anorexia to self-inflicted wounds to alcohol abuse. Shandler (1999) discusses some causes of negative body image, such as rape, sexual abuse, and media images. What is clear from both books is that girls are likely to internalize the various pressures of adolescence, which can lead to a decreased sense of self and a negative body image. The negative view of self is evident in the following submission by Jessica, 17, who lives in a small town in the Northeast:


Searching through catalogues
You wish you could order
The bodies not the clothes. (Shandler, 1999, p.5)

The aim of this independent inquiry is to investigate the following questions:

Body Image, Self-Esteem, Eating Disorders, and Self-Mutilation Defined

Body Image and Body Equity

Health Canada defines body image as "the picture an individual has of his or her body, what it looks like in the mirror, and what he or she thinks it looks like to others." (Health Canada, 1994, p.29). According to Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention Inc. (EDAP) (1999), body image includes "how you feel in your body not just about your body" (p.1). EDAP states that a person with "positive body image" has a true and clear perception of their body shape, celebrates and appreciates this shape, and understands that one’s physical appearance says little about one’s character and value as a person. As well, one accepts and feels proud of one’s unique body and refuses to spend unreasonable amounts of time and energy worrying about weight, food, and calories. A person with a positive body image feels comfortable and confident in their body.

On the other hand, a person with "negative body image" feels awkward or uncomfortable in his/her body. The person has a distorted perception of body shape in which one perceives parts of the body unlike they really are. He/she is convinced that only other people are attractive and that his/her body size or shape is a sign of personal failure. Likewise, the person feels ashamed, self-conscious and anxious about his/her body (EDAP, 1999).

However, the definition of body image described above may not be so straightforward. Health professionals, Russell and Rice (1997), bring forth a new concept called "body equity". They suggest that the term body image is "decontextualized" (p. 22), as it does not account for the oppressive cultural factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and physical ability. Russell and Rice (1997) believe the terms body equity "more aptly address the psychological, interpersonal, social, and political underpinnings of bodily experience and struggles (p.21)." Adaptation of this term could revolutionize the philosophy and practice of teachers, counselors, researchers, and health professionals regarding body image and self-esteem, because it asks, who is the person and what factors/contexts are influencing the way she views and feels about herself? Even though I agree that Russell and Rice (1997) have identified a term that is more inclusive and contextual, I continue to use the terms body image throughout this paper as they are more commonly used and understood in the literature.

Self-esteem isn’t everything; it’s just there’s nothing without it. (Gloria Steinem, 1992, 26)

Self-esteem is how worthy one feels. It includes confidence, respect, and satisfaction with oneself (Davis, 1999). Moreover, Alberta psychologist, Dr. John Battle (1981), defined four interrelated dimensions that make up self-esteem in young people:
  • General self-esteem: one's overall perception of self-worth.
  • Social self-esteem: one's perception of interpersonal peer relationships.
  • Parent-related self-esteem: one's perception of her/his status at home, including how his/her parents view her/him.
  • Academic self-esteem: ones' perception of her/his ability to succeed academically.

Taken further, academic self-esteem may be divided into perceived math and language abilities. A fifth dimension not discussed by Battle (1981), but described by Health Canada (1994), is physical self-esteem - one’s perception of physical ability and physical appearance. As these dimensions interrelate, a sense of self-worth emerges in young people.

Both body image and self-esteem contribute to a broader self-image or self-concept defined by how one perceives his or her characteristics and abilities and evaluates his/herself (Health Canada, 1994). It has been suggested that while this self-concept develops gradually and may change throughout one’s lifetime, self-esteem remains relatively stable (Health Canada, 1994). However, a stable self-esteem does not seem to be the case for adolescents, especially females. A look at eating disorders provides evidence that teenage girls’ undergo drastic changes in self-esteem during adolescence.

Eating Disorders

Davis (1999) defines an eating disorder as "an unhealthy and extreme concern with weight, body size, food, and eating habits" (p.57). Eating disorders are a severe reaction to an unrealistic body image and a myriad of influencing factors. Disordered eating occurs along a continuum from occasional overeating or restrictive eating to severe disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive eating and/or exercising (Davis, 1999). According to Health and Welfare Canada, while 1-2% of Canadian women between the ages of 14 and 25 have anorexia and 3-5% experience bulimia, another 10-20% of women engage in many of the behaviors associated with both eating disorders (National Eating Disorders Information Centre, 2000).

Meaning "loss of appetite", anorexia usually means just the opposite, for those with anorexia are invariably hungry all of the time (Davis, 1999). Often those who suffer from anorexia have a distorted body image, and view themselves as heavier than they are. Anorexia causes many physical problems that can lead to death. Emotional problems include depression, lack of concentration, irritability, unhappiness, and pessimism (Davis, 1999). Another eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, involves bingeing and purging. Bingeing is eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time. Purging is the attempt to rid the body of that food by inducing vomiting, taking laxatives, abusing diuretics to increase urination, or abusing drugs that induce vomiting. Sometimes excessive exercise is used as well. Emotional problems can mirror those of anorexia. The two disorders are so closely related that "fifty percent of those who suffer from bulimia have struggled, or continue to struggle, with anorexia" (Davis, 1999, p.37).

Compulsive eating, or "binge eating disorder", involves eating in response to psychological stress rather than hunger. Sometimes called compulsive overeaters, people with this disorder eat in binges or in frequent sessions using food as a way to deal with uncomfortable feelings. They may want to lose weight, but do not purge. (Davis, 1999).

The relationship between body image, self-esteem, and eating disorders is not direct. However, several things seem clear. As Davis (1999) points out, "people who suffer from negative body image are more likely to have an eating disorder as well. They usually go hand in hand" (p.39). Also, eating disorders tend to be a female issue as girls and women make up 90-95% of those struggling with anorexia and bulimia, while boys and men comprise only 5-10% (National Eating Disorders Information Centre, 2000). Crook (1992) argues that "bulimia and anorexia, although they seem to be problems of eating and are called eating disorders, are not fundamentally problems of eating; they are problems of emotion" (p. 22). The scenarios in Crook’s (1992) book, Looking Good - Teenagers And Eating Disorders, along with those in Pipher’s (1994) Reviving Ophelia, and girls’ shocking writings in Shandler’s (1994) Ophelia Speaks, clearly depict that the relationship between body image, and eating disorders is largely emotional, and often entangled in low self-esteem.


Self-mutilation, a contemporary form of body alteration being seen more frequently by health professionals who deal with adolescents, is more than eyebrow and navel piercing. It is characterized by "intentional destruction or mutilation of one’s own body tissue without conscious suicidal intent" (Davis, 1999, p. 40). These self-injurious acts include cutting, burning, scratching, bone breaking, skin carving, picking of scabbed wounds, and plucking of eyebrows, eyelashes and hair from the scalp. Most self-mutilators are female and are also likely to have an eating disorder. Self-mutilators say it can be a way to convert unbearable emotions into tolerable physical pain, to bring feeling when one only feels numbness inside, or to help express anger or release tension (Davis, 1999).

While the majority of eating disorders occur in adolescents and young women, the incidences among males is also increasing and research suggests that children in early elementary are becoming more concerned and conscious of how they look. Further, a study by Health and Welfare Canada (1992) documented that 37% of Canadian females age 11, 42% of Canadian females age 13, and 48% of Canadian females age 15 say they need to lose weight (National Eating Disorders Information Centre, 2000). But what is causing children to see themselves in such negative ways?

Factors that affect body image and self-esteem

In the following excerpt, singer/songwriter Ani Difranco (1993) demonstrates her reaction to many of society’s pressures but especially those facing adolescent girls. She was nineteen at the time this song was written.

pick yer nose
i think shy is boring
i think depressed is too
i think pretty is nice
but i'd rather see something new
all those plastic people
got their plastic surgery
but we got a big big beautiful
we got it for free
who you gonna be
if you can't be yourself
you can’t get it from t.v.
you can't force it on anybody else
you know they come to clear cut
they come to strip mine
they come for some of my big butt
my big brain or just a little time
emphasis added
© 1993 righteous babe records

At an early age, Difranco (1993) was conscious of how relationships within society shape how people feel about themselves. According to the song, Difranco resisted such influences and challenged society’s pressures to conform. In many societies it is difficult to simply be because one is constantly appraising oneself according to others. An article by Health Canada (1996), entitled Body Image, Health and Well-Being - The Social Dynamics, states that self-esteem and body image are influenced by two coexisting means of appraisal. Reflected appraisal is seeing oneself as others do - or think they do. Social comparison involves comparing and rating oneself against significant others (Health Canada, 1996). Therefore, relationships with others deeply affect a person's self-esteem and body image. They are discussed here among other factors that affect body image and self-esteem in children.

Parents and Families

For children, the influence of other people shifts over time. Up to fifth and sixth grade, parents and siblings tend to be the most influential significant others. In seventh and eighth grade, friends tend to be the most influential. By university, friends, teachers and parents tend to equally influence an individual’s self-concept (Health Canada, 1996).

Ikeda and Naworski (1992) argue that comments made by parents and family members can have a huge impact on a child’s body image. Teasing and negative comments about a child’s eating habits can be hurtful and can cause children to develop unhealthy relationships with food. Likewise, negative comments about weight, especially for overweight children, may lead to unhealthy dieting at an early age and self-consciousness about one’s body. When children hear adults denigrating the bodies of others, they may mimic this behavior by teasing other children about their bodies (Ikeda & Naworski, 1992). When parents and family members talk negatively about their own bodies, children listen. Parents who constantly diet, and talk negatively about their weight, send powerful messages that worrying about weight is normal and expected (Davis, 1999). Children who hear these messages may also compare themselves, and feel negatively about their own bodies if they do not seem to measure up. I can understand how this might feel. While growing up, I often compared my weight to my mother’s, who happens to be shorter and smaller than me. When she complained about her weight I used to think that I must be very fat, because I weighed more than her. When I was younger, I did not consider that I was three inches taller than my mother!!

Families with unreasonably high expectations for children can also cause negative body image. When these expectations aren’t met, children can feel inadequate, depressed or guilty. Thus, children may take out their frustrations on their bodies through dieting and excessive exercise as a means to gain control over their lives (Davis, 1999).

Friends and Peers

Friends play an integral part in establishing body image, especially during adolescence. Friedman (1997) describes peer influence the book, When Girls Feel Fat: Helping Girls through Adolescence: The peer group gives [girls] an opportunity to test their opinions, feelings and attitudes against those of other girls and to decide which of their parental values they will accept or reject. The peer group also provides girls with emotional security they see their friends sharing the same problems and having the same way of looking at the world (p. 175). However, peers can place a lot of pressure on girls to conform to society’s standards. If one behaves differently than her peers or holds opposing views, she may become ostracized, talked about, or teased. One study suggests "girls’ relationships with other girls directly effect self-esteem to the point that they can make or break self-esteem, academic results, and even physical health" (Emmerson, 1994, p. 34). In terms of body image, girls often compare and rate themselves against their peers. According to Davis (1999), girls often engage in "fat talk", in which they complain and find fault with their bodies. When a girl’s friends constantly talk about how fat and ugly they are, she may begin to feel the same. This can lead to an unhealthy and difficult cycle to break. Further, friends may encourage each other to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as dieting and eating disorders and even compete to be the thinnest or smallest (Davis, 1999). Unfortunately, this pressure to conform is perpetuated by media and culture.

Mass Media and Culture

Alongside parents and peers, mass media and the prevailing culture’s views are an ever-pervasive influence on body image and self-esteem. Historically, the westernized image of the perfect body has changed dramatically, especially with regard to females (see Table 1). Over the past century different body images have been projected by western culture and promoted as standards for fashion and sophistication.

Table 1. A Shifting Vision of Beauty

The era  The look 
1890s  Plump, voluptuous 
Early 20th century  Corseted, hour-glass 
1920s  Flat-chested, slim-hipped, androgynous 
1930s and 1940s  Full-bodied, with emphasis on legs 
1950s  Voluptuous and curvaceous 
1960s to date  Thin, un-curvaceous (waif-look) 
Source: Health Canada (1996).

 However, little has changed in the last forty years. Since the 1960’s, idealized models of beauty such as waif-like women, and muscle-bound, sporting men have been ubiquitous in movies, magazines, television, and the cosmetic and fashion industries. As Pipher (1994) points out, "while beautiful women are slimmer, average women are heavier than they were in the 1950s. Thus the discrepancy between the real and ideal is greater. This discrepancy creates our plague of eating disorders" (p.56). Girls are trying to achieve impossible beauty standards that are produced through much media trickery - photo cropping, airbrushing, composite bodies, and body doubles. Likewise, as the Body Shopâ image below attests (Figure 1), this ideal is achieved by a representative few (Body Shop, 1997).

Figure 1. There are 3 billion women who don't look like supermodels and only 8 who do.

Messages from the media tell girls and women that to be successful one must be attractive and thin. Beautiful, thin female bodies, that are used as commodities to sell products from alcohol to shoes, send the message that appearance is more important than character, personality, or social contribution. One study highlighted by Health Canada stated that, "whereas men view their bodies as tools that need to be in shape and ready for use, women primarily see their bodies as commodities, their physical appearance serving as an interpersonal currency" (Health Canada, 1996, p.26). According to Health Canada (1997), "In the western culture, slim is promoted not only as beautiful, healthy and sexy but self-disciplined and good. Attractive people are perceived to be kind, interesting, outgoing, and to have a variety of socially desirable character traits" (p.28). Therefore, a cultural value system becomes equated with thinness, and in turn attractiveness, so that anyone who deviates from this ideal may view oneself as incompetent, bad, and ugly. Such a value system has been called lookism, a term first used by Pipher (1994). "Lookism" is defined by Nichols (1996) as "that ranking of persons that attributes worth based on random variations in supposed attributes of personal attractiveness"(p. 118). This can be especially true for overweight children who, "according to one study, are treated more harshly by their peers than children with facial injuries" (Health Canada, 1997, p.28). As this negative perception carries over into adulthood the obese - particularly females- are stigmatized and punished psychologically, economically, and socially. In our society, "fat can be construed as a symbol of power in men but always symbolizes weakness and inferiority in women" (Health Canada, 1997, p.28). To this effect, the diet and beauty industries thrive off womens’ fear of fat and unattractiveness.

To further complicate matters of body image, at the same time that girls are comparing themselves to a barrage of media images, their bodies’ change in ways that contrast with this thin ideal. Pipher (1994) documents that negative body image and decrease in self-esteem and confidence in adolescent girls generally occurs with the onset of puberty. Once happy, confident, and active girls become moody, withdrawn, depressed, and at-risk during adolescence. Girls who once liked their bodies come to see them as ugly. As Pipher (1994) points out: Generally girls have strong bodies when they enter puberty. But these bodies soften and spread out in ways that our culture calls fat. Just at the point that their bodies are becoming rounder, girls are told that thin is beautiful, even imperative (p.55). Consequently, at a time when weight gain is essential to maturation, many girls take drastic measures to control it through dieting and eating disorders. Hence, puberty is a time when pressure to conform is contrasted by changes occurring in one’s body. Along with emotional changes due to hormones this can be a confusing and troubling time for adolescents and often these troubles are internalized, leading to lower self-esteem, and negative body image.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can be devastating to a person’s body image. A victim of sexual abuse often experiences extreme discomfort with his/her body because it is a reminder of the horrible experience. Furthermore, the victim may feel responsible for the abuse and consequently may think of his/her body as an object to be despised or punished. Girls who have been sexually abused at an early age may be afraid to enter puberty and become women, thinking that looking like a woman may bring more abuse. Consequently, girls may starve themselves or over-eat to stop development into womanhood with the belief that staying thin will cause the abuser to leave them alone (Davis, 1999). According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, "recent research has shown that 65% of people with eating disorders have experienced some form of abuse, including physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and/or witnessing violence between parents" (personal communication, 2000). Similarly, sexual harassment is a common form of abuse too familiar to girls.

Orenstein (1994) describes the sexual harassment that girls endure in the hallways and classrooms of their schools and the inability of administrators to deal with it. Harassment by boys included name-calling, touching, suggestive glances, unwarranted rumors, and jokes and innuendoes. While girls are often aware of the existence of sexual harassment in their schools, their strategies to deal with it are often limited. Informing school administrators of harassment often lead to worse harassment than the initial incidents. As Pipher (1994) suggests, "it’s no longer teasing, it’s sexual harassment, and it keeps many girls from wanting to go to school" (p. 104). A study released by the American Association of University Women reported that "70 percent of girls experience harassment and 50 percent experience unwanted sexual touching in their schools. One-third of all girls report sexual rumors being spread about them, and one-fourth report being cornered and molested" (as cited in Pipher, 1994, p.69-70). The effects of such harassment can reflect negatively on body image when girls may begin to dislike their bodies because of the negative attention it brings.

Schools and Classrooms

A study released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 1992, entitled "How Schools Shortchange Girls", documented girls’ loss of self-esteem during adolescence (Pipher, 1994). As described by Pipher (1994), "the study found that as children go through school, boys do better and feel better about themselves and girls’ self-esteem, opinions of their sex and scores on standardized achievement tests all decline. Girls are more likely than boys to say that they are not smart enough for their dream careers. They emerge from adolescence with a diminished sense of worth as individuals" (p.63). The study documents how schools treat boys and girls differently. "In classes, boys are twice as likely to be seen as role models, five times as likely to receive teachers’ attention and twelve times as likely to speak up in class" (AAUW, 1992, as cited in Pipher, 1994, p. 62). Furthermore, literature and textbooks focus more on male characters and illustrations, and activities and instruction appealed more to boys than girls. Boys received more classroom attention and detailed instruction, were called on more often, and asked more abstract, open-ended and complex questions than girls. Most significantly, "boys are more likely to be praised for academic and intellectual work, while girls are more likely to be praised for their clothing, behaving properly and obeying rules" (AAUW, 1992, as cited in Pipher, 1994). Such discrepancies teach girls to be quiet and complacent, and boys to be vocal and aggressive. Likewise, it teaches girls to seek praise based on appearance of themselves or their work, and boys to seek praise about their accomplishments.

Physical Education

Physical activity and participation in sports has been reported to improve body image and increase self-esteem, especially in girls, as documented by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (1997). However, according to the Calgary Regional Health Authority (2000), sports in which athletes are weighed "perpetuates the notion that weight-loss is the most effective way to desirable form, both aesthetic and athletic. Individuals may respond to pressure to lose weight with disordered eating behaviors" (handout, undated). The focus of sport then switches from one of health and fitness to an obsession with weight and fat. Ikeda & Naworski (1992) argue that "poor physical education classes can cause children to hate gym class and, consequently, hate physical education activity for the rest of their lives" (p. 43). Preconceived notions by physical education teachers that large children are less skilled in athletics and embarrassed to be seen in gym clothing, can negatively impact the self-esteem of such children. Also, such teachers are likely to overlook or ignore larger children in classes, limiting their opportunities for involvement and success in physical activity (Ikeda & Naworski, 1992).

While our society places high value on attractiveness, rankings based on sex, race, and able-bodiness can also affect body image and self-esteem. The message that children have come to accept is that how you look is more important than who you are. It speaks to why, as Pipher (1994) explained, "most girls choose to be socially accepted and split into two selves, one that is authentic and one that is culturally scripted" (p. 38). Strategies for improving body image and self-esteem must aim to eliminate lookism, sexism, racism, and ableism, and help children to discover and celebrate their true selves.

Strategies for Improving Body Image and Self-Esteem

"Accept yourself -- Accept your body.
Celebrate yourself-- Celebrate your body."

(Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention Inc.,1999, p.1)

The statement above will be my mantra to helping children in my classroom to feel better about themselves. Ikeda and Naworski (1992) argue that "body image and self-esteem are woven together to form the fabric of how we feel about ourselves, making it difficult to separate the two" (p. 6). Therefore, improving self-esteem is likely to improve body image and vice versa. This relationship between self-esteem and body image serves to explain why strategies to improve self-esteem that are offered here do not necessarily speak directly about body image.


Abundant research exists about strategies to improve self-esteem in children. Ikeda & Naworski (1992) build upon Bean’s (1992) four conditions necessary to maintain a high level of self-esteem and relate them to body image. These are 1) a sense of connectiveness, 2) a sense of uniqueness, 3) a sense of power, and 4) a sense of models (pp. 7-9).

Children with a strong sense of connectiveness gain satisfaction from the people, places, and things to which they are connected, and allows them to feel secure and supported and to respect themselves and others. Connectiveness is weakened through discrimination and feelings of being different. If children are unhappy or uncomfortable with their body image, their sense of connectiveness may suffer. Therefore, encouraging respect and support for each other in the classroom might help children to feel a sense of connectiveness and hence satisfaction with themselves and their bodies.

Children with a high sense of uniqueness acknowledge and respect the qualities and characteristics that make them special and different. Teachers and other adults reinforce this through confirmation that these qualities and characteristics are important and good. This sense of uniqueness is weakened when children feel their body image doesn’t fit the societal norm and may view their uniqueness in a negative way. It is imperative that children are engaged in discussions about different qualities and characteristics in order to identify these in themselves.

Sense of power relates to beliefs about one’s competence and ability to influence one’s circumstances. Children with a strong sense of power are able to take charge of important things in their lives, and make choices and desired changes. They feel they have some control over their lives. Larger children may begin to feel incapable of control over their eating and activity if they are criticized about such habits or if their food intake is limited. This can have a negative effect on a child’s sense of power. Teachers and adults can empower children by allowing them to make decisions, take responsibility for their actions, and make choices regarding their circumstances. However, the teacher must guide children through the decision-making process so that they are able to understand the consequences and outcomes of their actions.

Finally, models provide children with standards and values they need to help them make sense of the world. They act as reference points to guide behavior and help children set their own values, goals, personal standards and ideals. Ikeda & Naworski (1992) describe three different models: "Human models are real or fictional people whose characteristics and actions we admire and seek to emulate. Philosophical models are the ideas, beliefs and values promoted by society, religion, families, etc., that guide our actions and choices. Finally operational models are the automatic, almost subconscious responses and behaviors that develop as a result of constant, repetitive experience (i.e., saying please and thank you, standing up when one is introduced, etc.)" (p. 9). In western society overweight, disabled, and female children as well as those from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds - may have a difficult time finding appropriate models. Likewise, there are few positive female models to emulate in math and science. This lack of models can emphasize children’s differences in unaffirming ways. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers be models to children and seek out and use resources that provide models of people of all abilities, cultures, sizes, and gender. Ikeda & Naworski (1992) reinforce this by stating, "Parents, teachers and other caregivers are children's most important human models. When we model respect for and acceptance of ourselves and others, regardless of body size or other physical attributes, we send a powerful message to our children that helps build their self-esteem" (p. 9).In order to be a model of positive body image, it is important to question one’s actions and words and how these may be transmitted to children. Appendix A provides a list of questions to consider with regard to body image.

Glennon's (1999) book 200 Ways to Raise a Girl's Self-Esteem is an excellent resource that indirectly incorporates Bean’s (1992) conditions into strategies and guidelines for teachers and parents. One hopes that such attempts to foster self-esteem take the emphasis off the body and redirect it to the qualities and characteristics of the whole person. It is with this intent that children will believe and live by the adage, "It's what’s inside that counts."

In the article How Can I Help My Pre-adolescent?, O’Brien (1989) highlights the research of H. Stephen Glenn (1989) about alternative ways to foster individual self-esteem. Individuals come to base self-esteem on praise and acceptance from others rather than personal acknowledgment of success or failure. Praising children for behavior and actions is effective in fostering positive self-esteem, however, helping children to identify their successes and failures helps them learn about themselves. This approach involves a one-two-three method of managing self-esteem by identifying 1) what was achieved, 2) what skills were used, and 3) how the person felt in achieving success. Teachers and parents can foster self-esteem in this way by asking questions such as:
  • What did you do to achieve this?"
  • "What skills did you use to make this happen?"
  • "How did you feel when you realized you had achieved in this way?

Essentially this method allows an individual to achieve positive self-esteem in the absence of others by grounding self-esteem in one's personal recognition of success (O’Brien, 1989, p. 36). While this method could prove beneficial for children, I suggest that it be slowly introduced alongside, rather than replace, the systems of praise to which children have become accustomed. From my observations, I have noticed that children are used to others telling them they are good or have done well and don’t inherently understand the skills they use or qualities they have that make them good. Therefore, I believe it would take an adjustment period for students to be able to learn about skills and feelings in order to identify them and achieve positive self-esteem in this manner.

Teaching with Equity

Teaching with equity allows all students to have a voice, be challenged, and engage in learning. However, equity is different than equality. Equity is defined by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1981) as "freedom from bias or favoritism," whereas equality is "the quality or state of being equal" (pp. 382-3). Therefore, teaching with equity does not mean to treat everyone the same, but instead means to teach in a way that encompasses and acknowledges the individual needs and abilities of all students. It involves fair and unbiased treatment of all children. Orenstein (1994) observed that "by sixth grade, it is clear that both girls and boys have learned to equate maleness with opportunity and femininity with constraint" (p. xiv). As discussed, classrooms are not always egalitarian. Inequitable treatment between boys and girls can lead to dramatic effects on self-esteem. Research suggests that girls lose academic confidence and self-esteem during adolescence particularly in the areas of math and science (Pipher, 1994). Awareness of these factors, and focus on improving academic self-esteem and confidence in students, is likely to have spin-offs to many other areas of self-esteem, including improved body image.

In the following section, some strategies for teaching with gender equity, adapted from A Guide to Gender Fair Education in Science and Mathematics by Burger and Sandy (1998, p. 6) are presented. While these apply more specifically to the areas of math, science and technology (MST), they can easily apply to all academic areas. Provide visible examples of female role models in MST through guest speakers, posters/wall display/bulletin board featuring women engaging in MST, research projects of women inventors/scientists to increase awareness of women’s potential for all students

Critique male/female stereotypes in media/ curriculum pertaining to MST, try to find resources that are gender-neutral or gender-balanced

Encourage the school library to replace biased, stereotypic resource materials

Use more small group work involving cooperative learning rather than competition

Promote equitable student participation:

Call on all students, hands up or not

Interact with students in small groups or individually, use less whole class discussions or public drill

Structure activities so equipment and leadership are shared equally by all students

Give praise based on achievement not neatness of work. Praise both boys and girls, or neither boys and girls, based on appearance!

Use more hands-on activities with open-ended learning opportunities. Use practical applications involving creative problem-solving that relates to the real world.

Provide active career guidance as part of regular curriculum and relate skills that students are learning to careers in which those skills are needed. Use female examples and role models.

Assess and evaluate classroom practices for gender bias using videos, peer or student observation, and self-surveys. This last point seems particularly important because "classroom bias is rarely done intentionally; teachers are largely unaware of differential treatment" (Virginia Space Consortium, 1996, as cited in Burger & Sandy, 1998, p.5). Therefore, I have provided a resource, entitled "Teaching Style and Self-Evaluation", which contains tips and questions for educators to consider about their practice (Appendix B).

As a teacher I want to hear all my students speak, to elicit their opinions and reactions to information, to listen to their questions and let them form answers. Orenstein (1994) confirms the importance of this desire by suggesting that "students who talk in class have more opportunity to enhance self-esteem through exposure to praise; they have the luxury of learning from their mistakes and they develop the perspective to see failure as an educational tool" (p. 12). The familiar phrase "Children should be seen and not heard" needs to be reversed. Children should be heard and not seen, for this speaks to what they have to say rather than how they look. Teaching with equity affords all students this opportunity to speak!


A reason that people-watching can be so interesting is because every body is so different from the next. Recognition of diversity relates closely to the promotion of body equity suggested earlier by Russell and Rice (1997). To foster healthy body images (and likewise, body equity) in children, Ikeda and Naworski (1992) recommend consistency in promoting the following concepts:
  • Human beings come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and have different physical characteristics and abilities. This diversity should be accepted, respected, and valued.
  • Everybody is a good body.
  • We respect the bodies of others even when they are quite different from our own bodies (p. 12).

Health Canada (1997) asserts that, "overweight and thin need to be viewed not as opposites but as points on a continuum without value judgments at either end" (p. 29). Likewise, this statement could be extended to skin color, gender, height, ability, sexual orientation, or any other attribute that makes one person differ from another. Talking about such issues is not as easy as suggested, for, as Pipher (1994) contends, "we have so few examples of good discussions about ethnic differences that even to acknowledge differences makes most of us feel guilty. So differences tend to be ignored and feelings about them become shameful, individual secrets" (p. 75). I believe it is the teacher's responsibility to engage students in such discussions. This may include discussions about the role of genetics, culture, and environmental factors as they pertain to diversity or those attributes one is able to change (i.e., clothes, hairstyle, make-up, and so on.) and those one cannot (i.e., skin color, height, shape, and so on).

Media Analysis

Often we blindly accept the images and messages that the media gives us. Teachers can help students to examine the media for messages about what is ideal and often unrealistic.

Classroom activities and discussions may revolve around students’ observations to questions such as:
  1. What does the media tell us about the roles of women and men in society?
  2. What does the media tell us about what you need to be successful?
  3. What stereotypes are portrayed in commercials, on television, in magazines?
  4. What role models are provided for girls and for boys? How do these differ?
  5. Are people of various size, shape, race, and ability shown in the media

Similarly, teachers can ask children to analyze advertisements according to the following questions provided by Ikeda and Naworski (1992, p.55):
    1. Will that cosmetic, food or cigarette really make you look like the person in the ad?
    2. Would you be a better person if you looked like the model and used the product.
    3. Would your life change if you could magically make yourself look like the model?

Teachers can suggest that students voice their opinions to companies regarding advertisements, commercials, or programs that reinforce stereotypes or unrealistic ideals. Further, students can write complimentary letters to companies that promote diversity in appearance and ability. Teachers can model this public engagement by sharing their own letters with children and explaining why they wrote them. By critiquing the media, children will hopefully begin to negate these unrealistic stereotypes and ideals to which they compare themselves and begin to challenge them.

Health-Oriented Schools

Schools and teachers have the opportunity to model positive body image in the context of health and wellness. Schools can promote healthy eating habits through their cafeteria and lunch programs, and physical activity through physical education classes, sports teams and intramural programs. Discussions about what it means to be healthy take the emphasis off appearance and weight and place it on the factors necessary to maintain an active and productive lifestyle. These might include discussions about nutrition, sleep patterns, and physical activity. According to the Calgary Regional Health Authority (2000), conversations with children about eating disorders should always be addressed in the entire context of a continuum of disordered eating and include the dangers of dieting. Furthermore, they should never address the ways that people engage in eating disorders (i.e. people with bulimia vomit by…), but rather focus on wellness through healthy behaviors and attitudes. Teachers can model wellness to children by demonstrating good eating habits, a positive attitude and an active lifestyle (i.e. going for a walk at lunch hour). This may also include sharing experiences of physical activity with children such as hiking on the weekend.

Ikeda and Naworski (1992) emphasize that physical education programs should allow all students, regardless of size or ability, to participate and provide opportunities to set and achieve goals. In addition, teachers need to provide positive feedback and constructive criticism to foster positive physical self-esteem and body image. The intent is to encourage children to appreciate and respect their bodies and enjoy being active.

A report by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (1997) supports the use of physical activity and sports as a means to improving self-esteem and body image for girls. The report concludes that: Exercise and sport participation can enhance mental health by offering adolescent girls positive feelings about body image, improved self-esteem, tangible experiences of competency and success and increased self-confidence. Exercise and sport participation can be used as a therapeutic and preventative intervention for enhancing the physical and mental health of adolescent females (Sections II and IV). However, physical activity can be taken to the extreme as the report also concluded that "excessive exercise and certain forms of athletic participation have been found to be associated with a higher prevalence of eating disorders" (Sections I, II, III, IV). Physical activity can provide much benefit to children when it is enjoyable, provides a sense of accomplishment, and promotes wellness.

Along with physical health, mental and spiritual health are integral to overall health and wellness. Therefore, a comprehensive Health program might assist students to identify and manage emotions and stress, resolve conflict, and learn cooperation and communication skills. It was said earlier that eating disorders are more about emotions than food, therefore we must give students tools to deal with these emotions in a more positive manner. The outcome of health-oriented schools would be healthy, confident individuals who respect themselves and others.


A single classroom teacher cannot change society’s beliefs and practices regarding beauty and worthiness. However, it is my intent in my classroom to give children tools to develop positive body image and strong self-esteem. I have summarized some of the information that I have found to be helpful in this regard in this paper for the benefit of other teachers who share similar concerns, and have similar goals. I have provided some recommended resources on Regarding Self-Esteem, Body Image, Eating Disorders & Children’s Literature in Appendix C, and relevant websites (As of April, 2000) in Appendix D.

Through exerted consciousness of the various factors that contribute to body image and self-esteem, I hope to provide students with an environment that helps them accept and celebrate their bodies and true selves and those of others. I envision a classroom community in which all students are respected, accepted, and treated equitably; in which health and wellness are exemplified; and whereby students develop strategies to manage the complex relationships and pressures they face. Ideally, it is a place where every individual believes and asserts that, "Every body is a good body!"


American Association of University Women (AAUW). "Hostile hallways". In Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia - Saving the selves of adolescent girls, pp.69-70. New York: Ballantine Books.

American Association of University Women (AAUW). (1992). How schools shortchange girls. In Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia - Saving the selves of adolescent girls, p. 62. New York: Ballantine Books.

Battle, J. (1981). Culture-free self-esteem inventories for children and adults. In Edwards, P. (1990). A Capella: Self- esteem and adolescent women. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

Bean, R. (1992). "The four elements of self-esteem: A new approach for elementary and middle schools". Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates. In Ikeda, J. & Naworski, P. (1992). Am I fat? Helping young children accept differences in body size. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

Body Shop, The. (1997). Advertisement in Self Magazine. September. Available: http://www.about-face.org/light/progress/gallery/image1.html [2000, Sept. 11].

Burger, C., & Sandy, M. (1998). A guide to gender fair education in science and mathematics. Virginia: Eisenhower Regional Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education.

Calgary Regional Health Authority. (2000a). What Physical Health Educators and Coaches Can Do to Promote Positive Body Image and Prevent Eating Disorders in Their Athletes. Calgary, AB.

Calgary Regional Health Authority. (2000b). A Philosophy for the Prevention of Eating Disorders in Youth: A Handout for Professionals. Calgary, AB.

Crook, Marion. (1992). Looking good - Teenagers and eating disorders. Toronto: NC Press Ltd.

Davis, B. (1999). What’s real, what’s ideal: Overcoming a negative body image. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

Difranco, Ani (Vocalist). (1993). Puddle Dive. [Cassette Recording]. Buffalo, N.Y.: Righteous Babe Records.

Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc. (1999). Body Image handout. Seattle, WA.

Emmerson, M.L. (1994). Names will always hurt you! FWTAO Newsletter, Nov/Dec., 34.

Friedman, S.S. (1997). When girls feel fat: Helping girls through adolescence. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishing.

Glenn, H.S., & Nelson, J. (1989). Raising self-reliant children in a self-indulgent world. New York: St. Martin’s Press, as cited in O’Brien, S.1989. How Can I Help my Preadolescent? Childhood Education. Fall. p35-36.

Glennon,W. (1999). 200 ways to raise a girl’s self-esteem. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

Health Canada. (1994). Positive self image and body image: A crucial link. CAHPERD Journal, Vol 60 (3), 29-33.

Health Canada. (1996). Body-Image, Health and well-being - The social dynamics. CAHPERD Journal, Vol 62 (1), 26-27.

Health Canada. (1997, Spring). Healthy eating and self-esteem: The body image connection. CAPHERD Journal, Vol 63 (1),27-29.

Ikeda, J., & Naworski, P. (1992). Am I fat? Helping young children accept differences in body size. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

Merriam-Webster. (1981). Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen & Son Limited.

National Eating Disorders Information Centre. (2000, April). Health and Welfare Canada. Personal communication, via e-mail (nedic@uhn.on.ca).

Nichols, P. (1996). Lessons on lookism. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 5 (2), 118-122.

O’Brien, S. (1989). How can I help my preadolescent? Childhood Education, Vol 66 (1), 35-36.

Orenstein, P. (1994). Schoolgirls: Young women, self-esteem, and the confidence gap. New York: Doubleday.

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia - Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Ballantine Books.

President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Report. (1997). Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls & Physical & Mental Dimensions from an Inter-Disciplinary Approach. Washington, DC. [On-line report]. Available: http://www.kls.coled.umn.edu/crgws/ [2000, Sept. 12].

Russell, V., & Rice, C. (1997). From body image to body equity. ORBIT, 28 (1), pp.21-23.

Seeman, N. (2000, February 22). Education system failing boys: experts. The National Post. p. A1.

Shandler, S. (1999). Ophelia speaks - Adolescent girls write about their search for self. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Steinem, G. (1992). The Revolution Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. Toronto, ON: Little, Brown and Company.

Virginia Space Consortium, & Anstrom, T. (1996). "Gender Equity Awareness Training Module with Classroom Strategies for Mathematics, Science, and Technology". In Burger, C., & Sandy, M. (1998) A guide to gender fair education in science and mathematics. Virginia: Eisenhower Regional Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education.

Appendix A
Questions to Consider Regarding Body Image:

  1. Am I dissatisfied with my body size and shape?
  2. Do I talk about my unhappiness with my body? Whom do I talk to, and who might overhear what I have to say?
  3. Am I always on a diet or going on a diet? Who knows when I’m on a diet and how do they know?
  4. Do I express guilt when I eat certain foods, or do I refuse to eat certain foods while commenting that I am dieting to lose weight?
  5. Do I make negative comments about other people’s sizes and shapes? Do I feel superior to them because I think my body is better than theirs?
  6. Am I prejudiced against overweight children and adults? Do I avoid making friends with overweight people? Am I embarrassed to be seen in public with overweight people?
  7. As a teacher do I tend to pay less attention to overweight children in my classroom? Have I ever been surprised when such a child, who I thought was not very bright, got a high grade on a standardized test? Has a parent ever complained that I was treating an overweight child unfairly in some way?


Keep in mind that the following questions could be extended to other body issues such as race, gender, and ability.

Source: Reproduced from Ikeda J. & Naworski, P. (1992). Am I Fat? Helping Young Children Accept Differences in Body Size. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

Appendix B 
Gender Equity: Teaching Style and Self Evaluation

Tips and questions for the educator:

    1. In the classroom, when asking a question, allow students a few minutes to think before calling for show of hands.
    2. Allow enough "wait time" before calling on the first students to answer. Ask yourself, "Do I call on the first student who asks to be recognized?" Ask someone to record your interactions.
    3. Use randomly sorted index cards with students' names to insure that each student is called upon each day.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do you ask both boys and girls the same kinds of questions? (Comprehensive, Probing, Analytical, Evaluative, Synthesizing)
  2. Do you encourage girls as well as boys to problem solve and think for themselves?
  3. Do you commend girls as well as boys for their efforts?
  4. Do you do more for girls as compared to boys?
  5. Do you expect girls as well as boys to do equally well in all areas?
  6. Do you make eye contact with girls as well as boys when you address the class as a whole?
  7. Do you intervene to allow students to complete their thoughts without interruption?
  8. Do you expect all your students to like mathematics and science?
  9. Do you make sure that all students in a group have an opportunity to assume leadership positions?
  10. Are you aware of which students contribute, what they contribute, and how often they contribute?
  11. Do you encourage the non-contributors to express their thoughts?
  12. Do you provide adequate role models in your curriculum for both girls and boys?
  13. Are norms established which do not limit any child’s aspirations and self-concept?
  14. In the stories and materials provided, do boys perform all the brave and important deeds or assume the leadership roles?
  15. Are activities divided on a non-gender basis? Do boys and girls operate the technical and computer equipment? Do both assume data recording and communication functions?
  16. Do you recommend certain career goals or courses more often for a particular gender?

Source: Reproduced from Burger, C., & Sandy, M. (1998). A Guide to Gender Fair Education in Science and Mathematics. Virginia: Eisenhower Regional Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education.

Appendix C

Recommended Resources

Regarding Self-Esteem, Body Image, Eating Disorders

Davis, B.. 1999. What’s Real, What’s Ideal: Overcoming a Negative Body Image. New, York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

Written for teens regarding body image and eating disorders but still a good resource for teachers.

Friedman, S.S. 1997. When Girls Feel Fat: Helping Girls Through Adolescence. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishing.

Glennon,W.. 1999. 200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

Orenstein, P. 1994. SchoolGirls Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. New York: Doubleday.

Pipher, M.. 1994. Reviving Ophelia - Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books.

Children's Literature

Carlson, N.. 1988. I Like Me! Markham, ON: Penguin Books Canada Ltd.

A story about a pig that likes herself, most appropriate for K-3.

Greene, S.. 1996. Owen Foote, Second Grade Strongman. New York: Clarion Books.

Best for K-3, however, needs some accompanying discussion about stereotypes and strength.

Koski, M.. 1999. Impatient Pamela Asks: Why Are My Feet So Huge? Duluth, MN: Trellis Publishing Inc.

Pamela finds appreciation for her big feet through soccer, most appropriate for K-3 although could be good leeway into puberty discussion for Grades 4-6. Strong female role model.

Odean, K.. 1997. Great Books for Girls: More than 600 Books to Inspire Today’s Girls and Tomorrow’s Women. New York: Ballantine Books.

Appendix D

Relevant Web Sites

(Existing as of April, 2000)

Websites for Teachers

Body Image


Links to the adults who care section of the Girl Power web site. Includes lessons, and possibilities for resources, including a handbook on body image.


A group that fights negative and distorted images of women. Provides addresses of companies to write to about negative and positive ads.


Web site for The Body Shop that works to improve the self-image of people everywhere.

www.naafa.org(National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance)

Public education, advocacy, and member support including a Kids Project section. Also links to Radiance Magazine for Large Women which includes articles by kids and teens.

Web sites for Adults Who Care About Girls


A web site that listens to girls and women celebrate their power. Includes Newmoon Network for adults who care about girls.


National Coalition of Girls Schools, promotes possibilities for girls.

Web sites about Eating Disorders etc.


An extensive eating disorders resource catalogue with related links.


Web site with a huge amount of information on eating disorders and body image.


Web site that offers resources and help for those struggling with self-mutilation


Website for Eating Disorder Awareness and Prevention, Inc. Can download Body Wise Handbook: Eating Disorders Information for Middle School Personnel or order Healthy Body Image: Body Image and Eating Disorder Prevention Curriculum for Grades 4-6.

Web sites for and about Girls - Health, Strength, Guidance, Body Image


A great site for girls that discusses body image among a number of other issues.

www.kcpl.lib.mo.us (Girls Can! )

Internet links especially for girls, from the Kansas City Public Library.


Website for girls who play sports.


Melpomene organization supporting health and physical activity for girls.

Websites for and about Girls in Science, Math, and Technology


Highlights girls and women using science, math, and especially technology. Provides opportunities for girls to review technology products and magazines, discuss experiences with other girls, and gives advice on starting tech clubs. Plenty of resources for parents and teachers including lesson plans, research about girls, and links to other girl-positive sites. Fantastic!

www.girlscientist.org (Girls Do Science website)

More appropriate for secondary girls interested in science, math, and technology careers.


Science is for Girls website, has many links to other science related sites.


A general science webpage that has many links to girls in science and gender equity. It includes lesson plans and experiments.

www.ozemail.com.au (Macarthur Girls High School Science Page)

A great place to send girls for science information providing dozens of links to educational websites suitable for elementary and secondary schools. Devised and maintained by Macarther High School girls.

www.acs.oakland.edu (Girls in Science - Museum, University, School, and Community Connections)

Great resource for teachers and parents of girls, this site "focuses on equitable support of girls in science programs and the changes needed in teacher education to make gender fair practices more pervasive."

www.backyard.org (Backyard Project Home Page)

Encourages girls in careers in technology

www.ael.org (Rural and Urban Images: Voices of Girls in Science, Math & Technology)

Uncommon Knowledge Projects that help middle-school age youth discover science and math in everyday life. Can download lessons, unit plans, and integrated curriculum.


Kids Center - location for interactive educational games for children and kids of all ages.


Sites Encouraging Girls - includes teacher’s resources, girl’s resources, weblinks.


A site dedicated to encouraging and empowering middle school-aged girls in math, science, engineering, and technology.


A historical site documenting 4000 years of women in science around the world. Great place to find role models for girls.


Features activities for young girls, including a cyber bookstore of adventure books of young girls who use science and technology to solve mysteries and other problems.

www.aauw.org/home.html (American Association of University Women)

Site containing much research on girls, women, and education, including gender equity.


Provides many links to other websites used by The M.A.D. Scientists Club. Girls Incorporated.

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