Last Halloween, a woman in North Dakota planned to hand out candy to neighbor children, as is customary. However, she generated controversy when she shared the rest of her plan—to hand out a note, rather than candy, to the children whom she considered overweight. The note, addressed to the children’s parent(s), read “You [sic] child is, in my opinion, moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar and treats… My hope is that you will step up as a parent and… not allow your child to continue these unhealthy eating habits.”
This may seem like an extreme example but parents and families sometimes talk in similar ways to their kids about food and weight. For instance, an aunt might say, “You’ve gotten a little chunky, haven’t you? Here’s a diet soda.” Or a parent might suggest that a child join her on a diet plan because the child is a bit overweight. While ordered, healthy eating habits are an important part of healthy living, the most well-intentioned comments and food restrictions can have negative impacts on teens’ self-esteem and development. Outside forces, such as input from neighbors, peers, and media representations of bodies and health, have a profound impact on teens’ body image, but parents play a key role in how this issue is framed in the home and at the dinner table.
Although women and girls are more likely to experience negative body image and struggle with disordered eating, these issues also affect boys and men, particularly when it comes to societal expectations for men about muscle mass and tone.
Body image has to do with how a person sees himself or herself when he or she looks in the mirror as well as how a person feels “in” and about his or her body and does not necessarily accurately reflect others’ perspectives (1). Given the physical changes of puberty and often uneven physical development that occurs during this time, teens can feel especially vulnerable, uncomfortable, or self-conscious about their bodies, regardless of whether or not they are considered overweight by medical or societal standards. Since adolescence can be a particularly difficult time for teens, especially if they do not understand how physiological changes are affecting weight and fat distribution in their bodies, it is essential for parents to do they best they can to encourage their teens to feel as comfortable in their bodies as possible.
Parents can have a strong influence—both positive and negative—in the formation and maintenance of their teens’ positive body image. Some of the ways parents can affect their children’s views and impressions of their own include the following:
- Don’t let yourself be seduced by cultural and media standards for body image.
Make sure you point out that different individuals, eras and cultures have different standards of beauty. Hollywood does not possess the one true and definitive concept of what constitutes attractiveness.
- Think before you speak.
Talking directly to a teen about his or her body and weight can be problematic if done without sensitivity. For example, a well-intentioned parent who regularly tells her child that she is concerned about the child’s weight can negatively impact the teen’s body image. Over time, this can even encourage a pattern of disordered eating in an effort to meet the bodily standards outlined by the parent. In contrast, a more neutral statement about weight such as “We all have fat on our bodies, but it is important to eat a balanced meal and exercise,” is less likely to overemphasize fat, place a value judgment on a particular body type, or make the teen feel guilty.
- Watch indirect comments and non-verbal cues.
Avoid making offhand comments, statements, or “observations” about the teen or others’ bodily frames, sizes, or even eating habits. These observations are part of a category known as “fat talk” and do not have to directly address the teen in order to be harmful. For example, noting aloud or dwelling on the weight gain or loss of a celebrity, how a family member’s body looks in a particular outfit, or even one’s own diet (particularly those that reference disordered eating, such as “I ate so much just now, I shouldn’t eat for the rest of the week!”) may indicate to teens that the bodily fat, diet, and appearance (often linked to attractiveness) are some of the most important components of oneself. Even the seemingly harmless, “She looks like she lost weight” in an approving, or disapproving, tone can signify to your teen that this person either did a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, or by extension, is a “good” person or a “bad” person. Similarly, nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions in response to a teen’s body fat, fit of clothing, or food choices can negatively impact his or her body image.
- Minimize triggers.
Being weighed in the doctor’s office or shopping for clothes can sometimes trigger the discomfort associated with negative body image for a teen. In these situations, parents can minimize the focus placed on appearance or weight by emphasizing other aspects of their teen’s identity, such as talents, passions, or favorable qualities.
- Carefully address weight gain or loss.
Many parents struggle specifically with how to talk sensitively to their teens about weight gain or loss. If you notice that your teen is gaining weight or has gone up several clothing sizes (or losing weight and needs a smaller size), try to remain as neutral as possible in tone and ask how your teen feels about changes in his or her body. Continue the discussion based on your teen’s answer. Similarly, it is equally important if you (or your teen’s physician) have been encouraging your teen to lose weight and his or her actions yield these “positive” results, to remain neutral in tone and ask your teen how he or she feels.
Finally, remember, and remind your teen, that health and happiness should not be equated with weight loss or weight gain, nor solely with his or her appearance in general. Instead, your teen needs to balance a focus on his or her talents, passions, strengths, and other valuable qualities with that of appearance.