General Health

Why Talking About Teen Body Image is as Important as the ‘Sex Talk’

As young children move into tween and teen years, they start to focus on the shape of their bodies. They even start to compare themselves to their peers as body image takes center stage. For girls, it’s often their waist and breast size; for boys, it’s more apt to be six-pack abs or beefy, cut arms. Facetune, Snapseed, and dozens of other apps for editing selfies have led to glam shots popping up everywhere.

“Earlier this year, psychologists found robust cross-cultural evidence linking social media use to body image concerns, dieting, body surveillance, a drive for thinness and self-objectification in adolescents.”

– Rachel Simmons,

As adolescents start to navigate social media, it’s important to help them understand how it can be what teen author Rachel Simmons describes as a “toxic mirror” — a way to look at themselves in an unhealthy light. And it isn’t just supposition or conjecture; these types of interactions are having critical consequences on our children’s self-esteem.

According to one study, adolescents who spent more time using social networking sites (SNSs) were more likely to spend time monitoring their body, dieting, obsessing about being thin, and practicing self-objectification, or seeing themselves as objects versus people.

But the consequences don’t just stop at too much time editing selfies, dieting, negative moods, and time in the mirror. Negative self-esteem is actually killing our children. In a report published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, young children who were overweight were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts.

If your child is approaching their adolescent years and you’re concerned about how they’re perceiving their body image, there are some important steps you can take to help them.

Recognize Signs of an Unhealthy Body Image

These signs might indicate your child is experiencing low self-esteem and likely poor body image.

  • They openly discuss the desire to look like their peers
  • They are sensitive to criticism
  • They have a different shape than most of their peers
  • They spend a lot of time in the mirror
  • They are perfectionists
  • They aren’t happy with their appearance
  • They exhibit signs of hostility or depression

Watch for Eating Disorders

Children who are hyper-aware of their body image easily become hyper-aware of their eating, and this can lead to eating disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (citing a NIMH-funded study published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry), about 3 percent of teenagers are in treatment for eating disorders. Sadly, many of them remain untreated.

Recognize that you may need to get your teen help if you’re seeing the following signs:

  • Significant weight loss
  • Refusing to eat or denying hunger
  • Sudden and/or excessive exercising
  • Ingesting laxatives or diuretics
  • Hoarding and/or binging on large amounts of food
  • Changes in eating behaviors, such as counting food, leaving to use the restroom, or eating alone
  • Sudden interest in meal preparation
  • Noticeable changes in mood (mood swings)

Be a Good Role Model

Your children learn by your example.

If you’re maintaining a healthy diet, they’re likely to do the same. If you’re exercising, encourage them to exercise along with you. And if you’re taking dozens of selfies a day and obsessed with photo filters and constantly fixing your appearance, you’ll teach your child to do the same.

Key takeaway: Be sure you’re setting a good example for your teen to follow.

Open Up Communication Lines

It’s easy for children to be confused about body image, so it’s important to have healthy, judgment-free conversations about what they are experiencing.

Help them to understand what physical changes occur during puberty, show them pictures of celebrities before and after makeovers, openly discuss the dangers of comparing to edited online photos, and consider tackling the cyberbullying that occurs as a result of comparing and jealousy.

As your child moves toward these formative growth years in this digital, connected period of history, don’t just carve out a plan to have the age-old “birds and the bees” conversation you probably had with your parent(s). Instead, understand that helping your child navigate their feelings about their body may be one of the most important conversations you’ll ever have.

Nurture their self-esteem, and don’t just do it by discussing their body; shift the focus to all of the other great things that make up who they are.

A body rarely defines a future, but instead, it’s intelligence, humor, a love of music, and other great traits your child has. Teach them to appreciate, honor, foster, and use their great gifts.

Dana Brown

Dana Brown

Connecting You to the Health Information You Need Most.

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