By: Katrina Brashares
Every morning, most of us wake up and think about how our body feels to us and will appear to others. On a good day, we can look past the insecurities each of us has about our body and be comfortable with who we are. On a bad day, we might focus on a perceived flaw – tummy too flabby, skin too wrinkled, hair too thin – and it puts a damper on our self-image. It may be a passing annoyance, or it can affect our lives more profoundly by compromising our mental health. This, times 10, times 100, is how most teens step into the world each morning. Remember how it was for you?
Why is it so hard for teens, in particular, to navigate body image?
Their bodies and brains are in upheaval, growing and changing constantly and their self-concept must rapidly evolve with the change, like a company having to re-brand itself every month.
It’s the time of identity formation and they are literally shaping their identity in reference to the world around them – from the influence of parents, peers, and idols. In person, print, and online.
Why is a healthy body image important?
If you don’t feel good about how your body looks (whether this is based in reality or not) you
might employ a strategy to change that. A healthy strategy might be to move towards self-acceptance. An unhealthy strategy might be to restrict food or over-exercise.
How can we help our teens before they begin using unhealthy strategies? How can we help to promote a positive body image?
#1: MODEL IT! Even if they seem disinterested, your kids watch and listen to everything you do. Studies have shown that with girls in particular, feedback from the participant's best female friend and mother were the most important predictors for positive body image.
Try to refrain from negative talk about other people’s weight and bodies. Especially refrain from commenting about your own or your child’s. Even positive comments such as, “you’re looking so slim today, honey” can lead our child to think “does that mean I don’t look slim on other days? Or am I worthy of praise when I’m slim?” Talk about how our bodies serve us in other ways besides our appearance – to be physical, to be active, to connect with one another.
Model with your food choices. When cooking or eating, choose foods based on preference, not fear of what they will do to the shape of your body. Think in terms of noticing your body’s hunger signals and adequately nourishing yourself. Your child will hear you talking about the positive choices you make. If you’ve been commenting on bodies your child’s whole life, it’s never too late to change. If you’ve been dieting and constantly worrying about what you and child eat, that can change too.
#2: EXPLORE YOUR CHILD'S SOCIAL MEDIA CONSUMPTION. The other most important
predictor of how adolescents feel about their body image is sociocultural influences. As you probably suspected, high consumption rates of social media (3 plus hours per day) correlate with lower self-esteem and negative body image. You know your child best – how can you gently bring up the conversation of the types of things they see on TikTok and Instagram? How often do they check their social media during the day? How do they feel after they come off it? Are they mature enough to manage their own limits?
The hard reality is that body image struggles, in some cases, can turn into disordered eating. It’s vital to be aware of this as eating disorders have a higher mortality rate in adolescents than any other mental health disorder, across all socioeconomic groups, races, genders, and sexual orientations.
It’s useful to know the signs of disordered eating in case this happens. It’s usually a combination of these symptoms and not just one:
Weight gain or loss
Excessive conversations about food, weight, and body shape
Purging, restricting, or binge eating
Using diet pills, diuretics, or emetics
Hording or hiding food or eating in secret
Some medical symptoms include menstrual irregularity, dizziness and fainting, leg cramps, hair loss, diarrhea and constipation, dental issues including bad breath and tooth erosion, low blood sugar, heartburn, and shortness of breath.
Depression and anxiety
As we all know, it’s very common to struggle with our body image and even more common for adolescents. Hopefully these ideas will nudge you to look closer and think more deeply about these issues and to communicate about them with your teen. If, in the rarer case, you feel like your child might be engaging in disordered eating, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.
Learn more about intuitive eating: https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/