U.S. culture’s obsession with unrealistic body ideals is taking a toll on girls. By age six – that’s kindergarten – girls start to express concerns about their weight and shape.
As many as 60% of girls in elementary school worry about becoming “too fat.” By the time they’re teenagers, 50% of teen girls (and 33% of boys) admit to using unhealthy methods to control their weight, including smoking cigarettes, skipping meals, fasting, vomiting or taking laxatives. Body dissatisfaction seems almost baked into the national psyche.
A poor body image is associated with feeling self-conscious, anxious and withdrawing from social activities. Taken to the extreme, poor body image can contribute to eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
On the other hand, people with a positive body image feel comfortable with themselves and have the confidence to try new things, enjoy physical activities and participate in a wide variety of social gatherings.
In an environment where there are so many factors conspiring to bring down a teen’s sense of self-acceptance, what can parents do to help raise a child who has a positive body image?
Be mindful of how you talk to yourself.
Studies show that parents (and mothers in particular) can transfer a negative body image onto their daughters.
One reason for mother’s larger influence is that they typically engage in more attempts to modify their daughter’s appearance and eating behaviors than fathers, according to researchers. Mothers are also more likely to have a poor body image themselves. Researchers have also found that the mothers of teen girls with disordered eating are more likely to have body dissatisfaction or to feel that their daughters need to lose weight to improve their appearance.
If you suffer from a poor body image, be careful of what you say to your daughter, and what she overhears you saying when you look in the mirror or when talking with your friends. Don’t put yourself down in front of her, and don’t put others down either for their appearance.
Do not push teens to diet or lose weight.
A study published in March in the American Journal of Pediatrics found that when parents encourage teens to diet, those same teens have a higher risk of being overweight or obese, binge eating, engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors and having lower body dissatisfaction 15 years later.
The study, which included interviews with 559 teens starting at age 15 and then again when they were adults, asked about eating behaviors and if the teens were being pressured or encouraged to diet by their parents. (The majority of the study respondents were girls, but boys were included as well.)
Teens who had been told they should go on a diet were 25% more likely to be overweight and 37% more likely to be obese. Teens told to diet were 72% more likely to binge eat as adults.
When you discuss food, focus on what’s tasty and healthy.
Saying that certain foods will “make you fat,” or that carbs are evil, or any of the other things that adults say about food isn’t what kids need to hear. All foods are acceptable in moderation. Encourage kids to try a variety of foods. Make sure they hear you raving about how great that watermelon tastes on a hot day, or how satisfying a chopped salad can be. Praise them for trying a new vegetable, or for making a healthy choice about a snack.
Your diet should not be your child’s diet.
Whole 30. Ketogenic. Raw foods. Whether any of these diets can be healthy for adults may be up to debate, but they’re not good for growing teens. Adolescents require a balanced diet from all categories of the food pyramid. Restricting a child’s food choices or encouraging them to join you on your fad diet can result in malnutrition, stunted growth and can set them up for eating disorders later on.
Teach your teen to be media savvy.
Largely due to social media, today’s kids are exposed to a relentless stream of idealized images of perfect bodies and perfect lives. Have a conversation with your kids. Make sure they know how these images are created, that you only see a snippet of their lives, and that when it comes to celebrities, photographers use creative angles and retouching to eliminate flaws.
Model a healthy lifestyle.
Exercising and eating well helps people of any age feel good about themselves, teens included. To encourage this, eat meals together as a family as often as you can. Plan active family outings such as walks, hikes, bike rides, bowling – anything that gets you up and moving.
Make some subtle changes at home, such as limiting junk food, sweetened beverages and fast food. This is good for everyone, and will ensure that a teen doesn’t feel singled out or that they’re the only one who has a “problem.”
Raising a child with a positive body image in our appearance-obsessed culture isn’t easy. But by being mindful of what we say to teens and to ourselves, and by modeling a healthy lifestyle, parents can be a positive influence on the ways teens feel about their bodies.