Appearance-based bullying

5min read

This article was kindly written by The Diana Award.

If your child is being bullied for their appearance, it can be hard to know how to support them. At The Diana Award, we equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need to stand up to bullying behaviour. Here are our top tips for helping your child deal with appearance-based bullying. 

Key Points:

  • No matter what, teens should not have to change their appearance to get the bullying to stop
  • Support your teen by reporting incidents of bullying behaviour to their school. Ask the school to strengthen their anti-bullying response
  • Promote a healthy body image at home to help your teen build resilience. Avoid commenting on people’s appearance and surround your teen with positive messages and media

What is appearance-based bullying?

Appearance-based bullying is any negative, repeated, and intentional behaviour that targets the way someone looks. It could focus on characteristics such as someone’s: 

  • Race or ethnicity  
  • Sex 
  • Gender expression  
  • Religious apparel   
  • Disability 
  • Body size or type 

It could target other visible differences, such as: 

  • Dandruff 
  • Skin texture or marks  
  • Limb difference 
  • Disfigurement 
  • Hair colour, style or texture
  • Make-up and clothing 

As your child gets older, the pressure for perfection increases. Leigh-Taylor, a member of The Diana Award’s National Anti-Bullying Youth Board, notes that ‘the younger children didn't seem to care about the way I looked’ in primary school, but she saw a significant change in her peers’ attitudes in secondary school.  

Spotting the signs

The best way to check in with your teen is through safe and open conversations. But it can be difficult to open up about appearance-based bullying, so watch out for signs your child might be experiencing it. Look out for:  

  • A sudden change in appearance. For example, their style could go from figure-hugging to baggy clothes, or from bright to more neutral tones.  
  • Continuous criticism about their appearance, or comparing their appearance to other people’s 
  • Changes in behaviour or mood, including becoming more withdrawn 
  • Changes in their eating or exercise habits, or their beauty routine 
  • Unwillingness to attend school or other activities, including sports clubs  

If your teen tells you they’re being targeted for their appearance, it’s important to stay calm. Thank them for their bravery and discuss how they’d like you both to handle it.  

Umaymah, another member of The Diana Award’s Anti-Bullying Youth Board, believes that ‘the biggest thing adults can do to help young people is shatter the stigma around speaking out. By shattering the stigma, we can allow young people to be themselves, without the fear of bullying’

Supporting your teen at school

If the bullying takes place at school, there are actions you can take. If possible, collect evidence and report it to the school directly. Many schools have an online platform you can use to report bullying behaviour. Your concern should be handled seriously, and schools should have an anti-bullying policy to explain the process. 

Encourage the school to strengthen its approach to anti-bullying. This could include signing up for an anti-bullying programme or running workshops to help students explore appearance-based bullying. In 2021, The Diana Award launched #FreeTheShoulders, a campaign aiming to educate one million young people, parents and adults on how to fight all forms of bullying. This campaign provides free, dedicated resources on appearance-based bullying. 

Remember, you can always reach out to the school's student support service, who should be able to connect your child with organisations or counselling services. 

Supporting your teen at home

Help your child process these difficult experiences and focus on what they can control. You could show them how to create a mood diary, in which they write down how they’re feeling and why. Or get creative with poetry or art. 

You could also discuss boundaries around their body and help them practise self-advocacy. You could role-play how they might respond to a friend commenting on their appearance or mentioning something that triggers low self-esteem.  

Show them love and support, and reassure them that they do not need to change their body. It’s perfect the way it is, and it is societal attitudes that need to change. Umaymah says, ‘many young people believe the best way to deal with appearance-based bullying is to change an aspect of their appearance to fit “social norms” in school and on social media. But this can negatively affect wellbeing.’  

Promote a healthy body image

By promoting healthy body image at home, you can boost your teen’s self-esteem and combat the impact bullying could have on their self-image.  

  • Avoid openly criticising yourself or others for how they look in front of your child 
  • Avoid labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, focus on food as fuel and emphasise a balanced and varied diet. 
  • Encourage a positive mindset. Suggest your child writes uplifting comments about their appearance on sticky notes, and places them where they can be regularly read.  
  • Share media that celebrates a variety of bodies and values uniqueness. Why not organise a family movie night, or suggest a diverse range of social media accounts to follow? 

For further resources on how to support your teen if they are facing appearance-based bullying, sign up to The Diana Award’s #FreeTheShoulders campaign to access 12 free resources.  

Further resources

If you would like further support and advice, call our helpline on 0808 800 2222 or email us at askus@familylives.org.uk. You can talk to us online via our live chat service, which is open, Monday to Friday between 10.30am and 9pm. You may find it helps to find out how other parents and carers have coped with this on our online forums. We also have a range of free online parenting courses that can help through the ages and stages of parenting. 

The Diana Award is a charity set up in memory of the late Diana, Princess of Wales and her belief that young people have the power to change the world. To find out more about their work, please visit their website.

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