Being an adult in a thin-obsessed society is bad enough. It’s hard enough to feel good about yourself when so many sources are telling you that your weight is wrong (and so are you). Being a teen in this kind of society is even trickier.
Personally, when I was a teen—well before photoshopped images saturated social media—I vividly remember so badly yearning to be thin. I assumed that was the ticket to being acceptable and popular and feeling loved. (Perhaps being acceptable to myself? Perhaps feeling love from myself?)
And of course I wasn’t the only one. (We never are the only ones, are we?)
The physical changes for teen girls also complicate matters. “Hormones are at an all-time high creating varied and frequent changes in body structure, enlarging and swelling of the breasts, water retention, appetite changes, and increased chances of depression and anxiety,” said Alyson Cohen, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with kids, teens, and families.
So if you’re a parent of a teen girl, you might be wondering, what the heck do I do? How do I help my daughter to embrace her body, and ultimately to embrace herself?
Cohen shared these suggestions to get you started:
- Focus on inner beauty, traits, and passions. “Regardless of your teen’s weight and physical appearance, noticing and praising [her] internal beauty and qualities will teach her that outside appearances are not what is truly important in this world,” Cohen said. She shared these examples: “You have a beautiful heart. You are a caring and loving person. You see the good in others. You genuinely care about other people.” Praise her passions, as well, she said. For instance, maybe your daughter loves to write or paint or play the guitar. Support her, and encourage her in these endeavors.
- Pay attention to what you saying. “If your daughter sees you as someone who thinks negatively about [people] who have a less than [socially] desirable figure, she is more likely to feel rejected or less valued by you due to your perception of others,” Cohen said. In other words, pay attention to the comments you make about the appearance and size of other people—and about others in general. Do you make jokes about people at different weights, whether higher or lower? Do you say things such as, “Why is she wearing a bikini? Does she own a mirror?” or “Why is he eating dessert? Doesn’t he realize he’s overweight” or “She really needs to start exercising” or “He’d look so much better if he just lost a few pounds”? Also, pay attention to what you say about yourself—everything from “I can’t eat that. Have you seen my thighs lately?” to “I can’t wear sleeveless dresses with these arms!” to “I need to go to the gym to work off that doughnut.” When kids hear parents speaking negatively about themselves, over time, they internalize these attitudes, and turn the criticism inward. They learn to nitpick their own size and shape. They learn that they’ll always come up short.
- Share positive, empowering messages. For instance, Cohen suggests, a mom might mention how she felt about her body after giving birth. “Maybe it did not return to the shape it had been, but she was able to reframe her thoughts, and appreciate that her body was a wonderful thing that can give life.” You also can talk about your own feelings as a teen and what helped you build a more positive body image, she said. Plus, “point out that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” Cohen added.
Ultimately, “the teenage years are a very sensitive time for developing a healthy body image,” Cohen said. As a parent, you have the power to reinforce your kids’ beliefs about themselves. Which is why it’s vital to communicate an accepting attitude about your daughter’s weight and shape, she said. Which is why it’s vital to cultivate an accepting attitude toward yourself, too. When we do, everybody benefits.
P.S., While this piece focuses on girls, the suggestions apply to boys as well—since a negative body image does not discriminate. Everyone, regardless of gender or size, is vulnerable.