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We all want our kids to be happy and healthy. And a positive body image is one of the keys. A positive body image decreases a teen’s chances of developing an eating disorder. In addition, recent research has linked a negative body image to other problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, unsafe sex, and self-harm. The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to help your child develop a healthy body image. And it’s easier than you might think.
First, it’s important to recognize the signs that a problem may be developing. Next, understand how the problem might manifest itself differently with boys and girls. Finally, we’ll look at some strategies for heading off a problem before it begins.
What is Body Dysmorphia?
Most people aren’t completely satisfied with every aspect of their appearance. Some people wish they were taller, others that they weren’t so tall. Others may wish their noses had a different shape, or perhaps that their ears didn’t stick out so much. But most of us learn to live with our imperfections and move on. But what if you — or your teen — can’t move on? What if that one flaw, become an all-consuming focus?
Body Dysmorphia, or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is an obsessive fixation on a physical flaw, and the need to fix it. The flaw can be real or imagined, and thoughts about it often occupy several hours of a person’s day. BDD usually starts in adolescence, and affects males and females equally. Unlike eating disorders like anorexia, which center only around weight, BDD can focus on any physical flaw. The DSM-5 considers BDD to be an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Does this mean if your child is unhappy about her or his appearance, she has BDD? Not necessarily. But if your child seems to be constantly unhappy about anything, including their body image, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. And if your child becomes excessively worried about his or her appearance, or develops compulsive behaviors, you might consider seeking professional assistance.
Body image issues for girls
Many people’s first thought, when it comes to body issues for girls, is eating disorders. The obsession to reach impossible standards of thinness pushes some young women to starve themselves, or to purge through excessive exercise, laxatives, or vomiting. This can result in brain damage, heart damage, osteoporosis, damage to the teeth and throat, infertility, and even death. Eating disorders can affect young men as well as young women (though young women are affected three times as often).
Eating disorders are one extreme to which a poor body image can lead. But even if one doesn’t develop a full-blown eating disorder, a poor body image can lead to other troubles for young women. Recent research shows that young women who have a poor body image are more likely to avoid activities and social events, to have low confidence, and to avoid seeing a doctor. In addition, focusing on weight and body image means that teens may neglect key life-building activities such as study and extracurricular activities.
If you’re concerned that you or someone you know is suffering from poor body image or an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association can help. At their website, you can find a helpline, a crisis line, and additional information.
Body image issues for boys
Boys, too, can feel under pressure to meet a specific physical ideal. One in four boys suffers from a poor body image, according to estimates. Only, unlike the pressure many young women feel to be smaller than they are, young men often feel the need to be larger. A new study in the Journal of American Medicine Pediatrics shows that 18% of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. Furthermore, anxiety from a poor body image can increase a young man’s chances of developing obesity and depression. In addition, it increases his chances of participating in high-risk behaviors like binge drinking and drug use.
Although some boys want to become thinner, many boys with poor body image want to become bigger and more muscular. Just as many female shaped dolls have impossibly tall, thin, and chesty figures, male shaped dolls are often musclebound and distorted. About one-third of boys in one study admitted to taking muscle-enhancing substances. And though steroids are difficult to come by, unregulated over-the-counter supplements are all too easy to find. And just because they’re unregulated doesn’t mean they can’t cause problems.
It’s more important than ever to really listen to our kids and to pay attention to what they say and do. Especially if they seem to be focussing on their appearance. You can find more information about eating disorders and body image issues for young men at the National Eating Disorders Association.
How to talk to your kids about body image
Teens are smart. And it’s their job to find the flaws in the world their elders have built, so that they can build their own, hopefully, better world. Teens are experts in spotting hypocrisy and inconsistencies. So before you start to talk, make sure you’re walking the walk. It’s not enough to say “appearances don’t matter.” They do. And even if you’re saying all the right words, the way that you relate to your own body, and to the bodies of others around you, maybe sending a completely different message. So examine what you say and do. Think about your own body image. And then when you sit down with your teen, really listen to what they have to say.
What Not To Do
Diet Talk and Weight Talk
Sixty-two percent of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the CDC. If you’re on a diet, there’s no need to be ashamed. But if you make it a focus of conversation, you might be sending your kids the wrong message. If your kids notice that you’re eating differently, it’s fine to explain why. But try framing it in terms of health. Instead of focusing on how you hope to change your appearance, explain how eating better and increasing exercise are making you stronger and healthier.
Categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”
Labeling foods as “all the time foods,” “sometimes foods,” and “special occasion foods” gives more information and removes judgment. Using words that imply moral judgment makes food a moral issue. By extension that suggests someone is a “good” person for eating some foods, and a “bad” person for eating others. And that’s silly!
Putting Down Your Own Appearance
We all do it, but we shouldn’t. And when we do it in front of our kids, it teaches them to look critically at their own appearance as well.
Commenting on Your Kids’ Weight Loss or Gain
This may be difficult, especially if your child, like one in three American children, is overweight. If your children are working to eat more healthfully and increase their activity, frame your discussion in these terms. Everyone, regardless of weight, can benefit from activity and healthy eating. Otherwise, don’t mention it.
Putting Down Other People’s Appearances
Just don’t. It’s unkind, it’s unhelpful, and it’s unnecessary. In addition, it will teach your kids that other people are watching them and judging them in the same way.
So, what should you do?
Talk with (not at) your kids.
Ask them about images of male and female bodies they see in the media. Ask them about their own body image. Discuss who might promote unrealistic body images and why. Who benefits? Hint: no one has ever made a fortune telling people they look great just the way they are.
The Day has an excellent selection of articles that parents and teachers can share with teens that address body image and the media. Teens are already beginning to question the world around them. Questioning why the media promotes certain body types over others, and who it benefits, can help teens make choices that will benefit them.
Praise what your kids do, not what they look like
From the time a child is born, people seem compelled to praise its appearance. “What a pretty girl!” “What a handsome boy!” But aren’t our kids so much more than that? If we teach kids that there’s more to them — and to everyone — than their appearance, we can help to head off body image issues before they begin.
Teach kids that bodies change size and shape as we grow
Weight gain often comes before a growth or development spurt. Many adolescents go through an awkward phase. Girls sometimes interpret the development of a woman’s physique — breasts, hips, thighs, belly — as “getting fat.” So it’s important that all children understand the stages of normal growth and development. In addition, it’s important to explain that awkward phases do pass. For fun, you might look at Stephen Colbert’s gallery of awkward teen photos different celebrities have shared, to raise money for Puerto Rico.
Encourage kids to move their bodies
Activity, whether organized sports or individual activities like hiking or cycling, helps kids to understand how their bodies work. In addition, they learn to appreciate what their bodies can do. What’s more, kids learn how different kinds of activities can result in different body shapes and sizes, all of which can be healthy and beautiful.
Cook and Eat Together
Cooking together teaches kids a valuable life skill. In addition, it’s a great opportunity to talk about nutrition and healthy eating. You can teach your kids to read labels and measure portion sizes as well. And if kids have a hand in making something, they’re more likely to try eating it. Moreover, family meal time is so much more than quality time together. Research shows eating together lessens the risk of depression, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse. In addition it can boost self esteem and academic performance.
Teach that words like “fat” and “thin” are only descriptions
Just like “red-haired” or “brown-eyed,” words describing body shape and size should not be used as insults or judgments.
Model Body Love
If you want your kids to have a healthy body image, show them how. No matter how you feel about your own appearance, find something you like, and rock it. Wear that shirt that makes you feel like a million bucks. Put on that special scent. Do your hair in a way that makes you feel like a better version of yourself. Then get out there and have a great time. Even if you have your doubts — and we all do — being a role model for loving yourself, imperfections and all, will help your kids see that they can do the same.
A Healthy Body Image in the Age of Internet
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children consume about seven hours of media a day. And if you’ve been on the internet lately, you know that anything goes. Have you taught your kids the difference between good information and bad? Do they know that anyone can put up a website with very little content regulation? Or that just because something is in print doesn’t mean it’s true?
Do you know what kind of media your kids are consuming? If not, then you should find out.
In addition to the usual distorted media images of male and female bodies, these are some of the things your kids may encounter:
- Cyberbullying: Weight and body image are often the focus of cyberbullies, but you can arm yourself, and your teen, with information. The Cyberbullying Research Center can help.
- Pro-Ana: There are apps and websites that promote anorexic and bulimic behavior and disordered eating as a lifestyle. In addition, members as young as 13 encourage and support each other’s efforts. Learn what to watch out for.
- Pornography: In addition to obvious concerns, pornography drives body insecurity in both males and females.
What you can do
The most important thing to do is to be involved. This can be hard, when that’s often the last thing teens seem to want. However, when you keep the lines of communication open and judgment-free, you and your teen can work together to make healthy decisions.
Follow basic internet safety rules. Set house rules about when, where, and how much screen time they are allowed. Keep a “family computer” in a public area, and teach your kids to safeguard their internet privacy. Friend them on social media — and make it a condition of their being able to use it. You might also consider using a parental control app on devices. Many of these will not only set time limits, but will also let you know where and how your kids have been spending their screen time. Kids can uninstall many of these apps, but if you make it a condition of using the device at all, most will grudgingly leave it in place.
It’s a big, wide, scary world out there. But teens are smart and capable. With your involvement and guidance, you can help them to develop the tools they need to build a happy, successful future. And that includes a healthy body image.
Featured Image CC BY 2.0 by Army Medicine, via Flickr.