Developing a Positive Body Image - A Guide for Teens and Young Adults
Developing a Positive Body Image - Growing Into (And Through) Your Burns
By Jessica Irven, MS, LRT/CTRS, CCLS
Does how you look define who you are? Does how you feel affect how you look? If a burn injury and survivorship has an impact on your body image, how can that impact be positive?
Understanding Body Image
Body image is your perception of your appearance. It is based on how you see yourself and how you think others see you. Both positive and negative experiences and relationships can affect your body image. Healthy body image ties into healthy self-esteem, or how satisfied you are with yourself and how much you think you are worth as an individual.
The Effects of Outside Influences
Now more than ever, growing up includes dealing with the pressure of how we should look based on supposed body ideals for both boys and girls. Social media, magazines, television, movies, and musical performances are filled with images of “beauty” and displays of “ideal appearance,” which may be reinforced by classmates, friends, coaches, and parents.
Even photo opportunities to present your “best self” now seem to require a shape-maximizing pose. Online pictures feature girls intentionally positioned to make their waist and hips look smaller, while boys flex their muscles and angle for the camera to look larger than life.
Special Challenges for Burn Survivors
Being a burn survivor can have a major impact on your body image, especially during your childhood and teen years. Figuring out who you are and navigating new independence as a young adult are directly affected by body image. Having burn scars (visible or hidden) and other differences in appearance can impact how you see your body, how you treat yourself, and how you interact with others. When posing for a photo, you may be tempted to duck behind your friend or adjust your clothing or hair to hide your scars.
If so, you are not unusual. In fact, approximately one third of young burn survivors report significant distress related to changes in the way their body looks, feels, and functions during their initial hospitalization (Corry et al, 2009). Once the initial shock and issues related to acute burn injury have passed, changes in appearance and physical ability can continue to affect body image.
The Importance of a Positive Body Image
Positive body image is an important part of how you are doing overall—your self-approval. How you see yourself, the world, and your place in it affects the choices you make, the confidence you have to dream big and strive for things, the types of people you surround yourself with, and how you expect to be treated. A positive body image as part of self-acceptance translates into respect for yourself and your body. It makes you more likely to seek and expect friendships and dating relationships in which the other person respects and honors you too.
On the other hand, if you do not feel acceptance of your body image, you may seek short-term friends or engage in relationships that involve experiences that only appear to be acceptance, but are not lasting connections. You may choose to go out with someone just to say you had a relationship or you may choose to numb your fear with substance abuse—decisions that can actually make you feel worse when you realize you weren’t able to be yourself.
In addition, negative body image can result in social anxiety, a need to seek approval and validation from others, a tendency to do what is important to others rather than what is important to yourself, and overall
negative feelings about yourself.
While your body image is affected by your perceptions of how other see you, others see how you put yourself out to the world. When you project yourself with confidence, you can showcase your positive attributes. When you project yourself with shame or disgust, it can hide all of your great qualities.
So body image matters because your body image is tied to your self-worth. With high self-worth, you believe yourself valuable enough to set high goals for yourself and also to expect others to treat you well.
How Body Image Can Evolve
Blake Tedder is a yoga instructor in his 20s who is currently completing a master’s degree in social work. When reflecting on his body image and how it has evolved since he was burned as a teen, Blake recalls feeling that “everybody else in the room wanted to talk about me being burned. . . I’d be in social situations and I would want to talk about it to get that off my chest right away.”
“In being with people I didn’t know, being a burn survivor became prominent. When I was with people who knew me, it receded into the background,” he explains. “It had to do with being anxious about being seen and at some level being out of control of how other people perceived me. For people who know me, the burns don’t mean as much; for those people who have seen them before, they’re not as shocking.”
Cassie Van Order, a young adult who was burned as a child, recalls, “There was a time that everything that was wrong in my life, I put on my burns. You think when people look at you that’s all they see... I put too much importance on the scars, while others were already looking past it.”
Blake, who is now more comfortable with his body, has had many positive experiences, especially through yoga. While he admits his self-perception is “still evolving,” his view has changed. Early in his healing, Blake said he felt “completely different” from other people, despite the things they may have had in common. He no longer notices that he is a “burned person/someone who was burned.” Blake says, “I don’t look for people’s reactions to me like I used to. I used to focus on them (or even create them in my mind).”
Blake now experiences social situations often without considering his burns and how they may affect the encounter. Instead, he focuses on his personal attributes (as a professional, as someone with thoughts, feelings, etc) and how those may influence the interaction.
Making Purposeful Change
Negative body image (and the low self-image that likely goes along with it) can be improved upon. What you choose to tell yourself and believe about yourself have an enormous impact on the way that you feel, how you interact with others, and even what you can achieve. Positive self-talk, what you tell yourself is true about the world and about yourself, can happen automatically and can continue when you reinforce that belief for yourself. (Visit http://www.phoenix-society.org for more information on this topic and ways to use positive self-talk to help yourself.)
By changing how you see yourself and how you see others’ interactions with you, you can positively affect the way they behave toward you. Participants in a studythey viewed themselves and how they reached out to others, reported a positive, self-affirming experience of social acceptance for many weeks afterwards.
I will talk to myself the same way I talk to people I love.
That intention is one suggested by author, teacher, and researcher Brene’ Brown. But how often do we talk to ourselves with criticism? You can choose to accept or reject the media message that beauty is defined by size, physique, or current fashion. You can also choose not to compare yourself to others when you look in the mirror, but instead to look at yourself with love and compassion. While it may take time, these practices can lead to a healthier view of your body and improve your self-image.
Blake recalls that at the time in his life when he was struggling with his evolving body image being around supportive friends and family was relaxing and took the pressure off. Around them, he could feel comfortable in the fact that they saw him, not his burns, at a time when he was still becoming more confident.
Growing Into and Through Your Burns
Surviving a burn injury requires a path of acceptance as part of the healing journey. Scars can impact body image in different ways at different stages of life. Ultimately, accepting the burns as part of yourself will be a step in this process. Some burn survivors refer to this selfacceptance as “growing into your burns.”
You may find the following suggestions to be helpful on your journey:
- Practice social confidence techniques to keep contact with and meet others in building a supportive social network. See the Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving section of the Phoenix Society website (http://www.phoenix-society.org) for steps and tools you can utilize in practice and social situations.
- Help yourself by building a support network that will help you accept yourself and your body, including the scars.
- Find a peer support group, burn camp, or retreat to connect with other burn survivors. Alongside supportive family and friends, engaging in activities with others who share similar burn survivorship experiences can make all the difference in feeling understood and accepted so you can accept yourself.
- Recognize in yourself the need for professional help in working through things that may be standing in the way of you accepting yourself; doing so is a sign of maturity.
A key to Blake’s positive body image has been yoga. He credits body practices, mindfulness, learning to relax and move his body, as well as a different appreciation of it, with allowing him to feel vitality that he hadn’t felt before. “Feeling good is important in the way you think about yourself,” he explains.
Healthy exercise, including the positive chemicals it releases in your body, the feeling of accomplishment and control, and appreciation for your own abilities are all important tools for accepting and using your body. It can be an important part of your own positive body image, too.
A major positive impact for Cassie was burn camp and the opportunity to spend time with other burn survivors. This brought her self-acceptance and the ability to see beauty in herself and others, regardless of (or even because of) the scars.
“Being around those people helped me see that being burned is not bad. It’s not a curse, for me it was actually a blessing,” she says. “Now I see beauty in different ways.”
The way others treated Cassie and the way she saw herself went hand-in-hand when it came to her body image. “I thought scars made me ugly,” says Cassie. “Now I know there’s beauty in lots of different ways—you have to see yourself as beautiful.”
To access programs and resources to help you with social skills and developing a positiive body image, go to http://www.phoenix-society.org/resources or http://www.phoenix-society.org/our-programs/online-learning/beyond-surviving-tools .
Tips for Parents
Fostering a Healthy Body Image in Your Child
Emphasize health over looks. (Examples: I notice that you packed very healthy foods for lunch. I can tell you care about keeping your body healthy. I notice that you are choosing to exercise and take care of your body.) Keep in mind that if you are authentically practicing the same healthy habits, it will carry more value with your children.
Refer to your child and yourself in positive terms. Complement your child’s and your own features rather than focusing on negative traits. The whole family can take a turn saying something positive about everyone at dinner or other times when you are connecting.
Comment on healing and progress (not deficits) in burn survivorship. (Examples: Wearing pressure garments is really helping to smooth out your scars. Doing your therapy is helping to prevent contractures on your joints.) Finding support of peers who have been there, done that, can provide inspiration and the ability to see a wider perspective rather than the present discomfort.
Focus on personal qualities and efforts that have nothing to do with appearance. Every child has a gift, a passion, a love of something. Find time to nurture that gift by showing interest and helping your child engage in that special “thing” they enjoy. Doing what you love nurtures a sense of self and can attribute to a positive self-image based values that are deeper than outward appearance.
Help your kids understand that advertisers and their clients (from fashion magazines to music video channels) must make viewers want their product; one main way of doing this is to make you think you will feel better/happier/more fulfilled if you use their product. This technique can make a child/adolescent think they “need” the product to compensate. Instead, remind your child that he or she is more beautiful when their true self and gifts shine through.
Prioritize healthy daily physical activity, especially as something you can do together (such as taking a hike, riding bikes, or even walking the dog), emphasizing physical activity as essential to good physical and mental health, rather than a vehicle to look thin. It can be fun—helping out in a neighborhood clean-up day, offering to rake Grandma’s yard, going on a nature scavenger hunt, or participating in group games, such as capture the flag.
Be aware of what you say to boys vs girls. From an early age, boys are encouraged to be “strong” and a “man,” points out Common Sense Media on their website, http://www.commonsensemedia.org. So it houldn’t be surprising that boys as well as girls can feel pressured to take extreme measures in response to the messages of body ideals. In fact, research related to body image has found that 46% of 9- to 11-year-olds and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992).
When you find yourself giving or witnessing negative body image messages, talk about it. Observe pop culture, media, and sports with your child/teen, and have conversations about the messages (regarding beauty, gender roles, health, etc.). Recognize that photos are often airbrushed and altered, and snapshots of these “ideals” are not reality. Even professional athletes have entire teams of people helping them to train their bodies to function at a level seen on television. Focus on personal goals rather than comparison to others.
Be honest about your own insecurities with body image and how you dealt with them. Showing your kids your own vulnerabilities helps them to understand that it is normal to feel this way and that it is hard to process all the information coming at us with a realistic lens. Often we are modeling negative views of our personal body image without even realizing it, which is why it is good to be aware of how you view yourself. Then when those teachable moments show up and you find yourself cutting yourself down, you can have a conversation about it.
Check in frequently and ask your child how they are feeling and doing. Ask them to describe the parts of themselves they value most. Look for signs of dissatisfaction or insecurities. These can be important signals of bigger concerns. Contact your pediatrician or counselor with concerns for your child’s physical or mental wellbeing or to have them evaluated.
Corry N, Pruzinsky T, Rumsey N. (2009). Quality of life and psychological adjustment to burn injury: social functioning, body image, and health policy perspectives. International Review of Psychiatry, 21 (6), 539-554.
Gustafson-Larson AM, Terry RD. (1992). Weight-related behaviors and concerns of fourth-grade children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 92 (7), 818-822.
Stinson DA, Logel C, Shepherd S, Zanna MP. (2011). Rewriting the self-fulfilling prophesy of social rejection: Self-affirmation improves relational security and social behavior up to 2 months later. Psychological Science, 22 (9), 1145-1149. doi: 10.1177/0956797611417725.
Jessica Irven, MS, LRT/CTRS, CCLS, is a Licensed and Certified Recreational Therapist and Certified Child Life Specialist. She specializes in supportive programming for those affected by illness and injury, and has been involved in the Phoenix Society’s Young Adult Workshops and Phoenix UBelong programming since 2009.