One of the biggest struggles of being a teenager is the struggle with body image. This problem is not new: as far back as the 17th century, artists frequently described the ideal woman’s body as “voluptuous and curvy”. This resulted in widespread use of corsets, which were designed to cinch a woman’s waist and support her breasts, so she could achieve the accentuated curves that were in vogue at the time.
As social ideals surrounding women’s bodies have changed, so too have the means of accomplishing those ideals. Many of the methods accepted for mainstream use have been physically and mentally damaging. Over the decades, we have seen everything from tight, high-heeled shoes capable of causing permanent damage to surgical interventions aimed at changing the structure of the face or body.
In recent decades, there has been an alarming focus on body weight. According to the National Eating Disorders Information Centre, almost 60% of girls in Grades 9 and 10 are actively trying to lose weight. This number includes girls without known medical problems whose weight falls within the “normal” Body Mass Index (BMI) range. Boys have their problems as well: around a quarter of adolescent boys attempt to increase their muscle mass in unhealthy ways.
A Lifelong Problem
Teenage body image issues don’t go away, they merely become adult body image issues. Studies in several parts of the world have shown that significant numbers of men and women are dissatisfied with their bodies in spite of having BMI and muscle mass numbers within the “normal” range. They go to more extreme measures to deal with these problems: these measures include unhealthy dieting and excessive use of weight loss or muscle building supplements.
It is increasingly apparent that body image challenges do not suddenly appear in adulthood. The seeds are planted during childhood, often long before the child becomes a teenager. By engaging with your children in a way that enhances their physical and mental health and their sense of confidence in who they are and what they look like, you can help them avoid a lifetime of body image challenges.
Knowing When There Is A Problem
Most of us tend to be our own harshest critics. A certain degree of self-criticism is normal, and it can be helpful. After all, what motivates us to do anything is the idea that we are going to gain something we don’t already have: knowledge, skills, better physical or mental health. Our quest for self-improvement is what drives us to accomplish things.
That idea applies to body image and the way we look. If you’re not happy with how your hair looks, you go to a salon or barber shop. If you want to look more professional at work, you might buy some new clothing. If you start participating in a sport for the fun of it and discover that you have lost weight as a result of the activity, you might feel good about that.
The problem arises when preoccupation with your body starts to interfere with your daily life or your ability to enjoy yourself. For children, this is especially problematic: they may deal with their negative thoughts and feelings by engaging in behaviours that are extremely harmful to bodies and minds that are still growing and developing.
Some signs that your child might be experiencing body image challenges include the following:
They associate their weight with negative character traits. They may say things like, “I’m so fat and lazy.”
They spend a lot of time looking at their body in the mirror. You may observe them pinching their arm, thigh, or belly to assess for fat.
They talk about the sensation of “feeling fat”.
They believe that losing weight will make them happier, more popular, or more successful.
They strictly police their own eating habits out of fear that they will gain weight.
They develop body dysmorphia, a condition in which the person is preoccupied with perceived flaws in their appearance that are not observed by others. For instance, your teenager may be convinced that they are bigger than they actually are.
Why Do Body Image Issues Arise?
When you are trying to help your kids foster a positive body image, it is helpful to understand how and why body image issues arise. This helps you target the factors that you believe are most relevant to your children.
Since glossy magazines were introduced in the 1930s, teenagers have wished they could be as beautiful or muscular as the models gracing the pages. As magazine production and distribution evolved, these images of what was considered to be “ideal” became accessible to more people. Children would look at the pictures and aspire to be like the models; teenagers would look at the pictures and despair that they were not like the models.
The young people of today have a particularly difficult time, because the ideals they aspire to often don’t exist. Photo editing software has evolved to the point where it is possible to create standards of “perfection” that cannot be met. What this means is that children and teenagers are putting their physical and mental health at risk by chasing a goal they will never achieve, because that goal is not possible.
And when that goal is consistently not met, young people start to think there is something wrong with them. They follow diets that cannot be sustained, they push their physical limits when it comes to exercise. As they do all of this and still fail to attain the standards they see on social media, their feelings of self-worth go into a downward spiral.
Something that is often forgotten is that children and teenagers are raised by parents who were themselves exposed to unrealistic media images. For someone who has spent decades being bombarded with the message that you have to look a certain way to be considered attractive, it is difficult to break free from that mindset.
Children are perceptive: they pick up on their parents’ perceptions of themselves. This influence is often both unintentional and unconscious. Sometimes all it takes for a child to internalise the idea that certain body types are “better” is to hear a parent say they’re going to watch what they eat because they need to lose weight.
Children and teens can be extremely critical of those who do not conform to social ideals. Kids who have physical differences, including being larger or smaller than the norm, are frequently targeted. Any child who has the same insults thrown at them over and over again will eventually start to believe those insults. Witnesses to the bullying are impacted as well, thinking that they have to conform to social norms in order to avoid being targeted themselves.
For some people, losing weight or gaining muscle is not merely a function of exercising a certain way or following a specific kind of diet. There are some medical conditions and treatments that result in changes to weight or muscle mass. It can be difficult for children to process this reality, as they see those around them not having the same struggles they do.
How Can We Help Kids With Their Body Image?
The bad news is that negative body image can set in from a young age. The good news is that there is plenty that parents can do to help their children and teenagers in this area. It all comes down to fostering self-esteem, encouraging kids to be in tune with their bodies, and teaching them that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
Be aware of how you talk to your children
One of the most powerful tools we have is communication. Kids form their outlook on life in part by listening to the way we talk, not only to them, but to other people in their presence. By following these guidelines, you can help your child avoid body image issues:
Instead of talking about diets, talk about healthy eating. Avoid labels like “fat-free” and “low-fat”, and instead focus on nutrients and what they do for the body.
Avoid compliments and comments that are related to weight or muscularity. If a child hears a parent compliment someone on losing weight, they may start to internalise the idea that weight loss is tied to attractiveness.
Exercise should not be approached as a means to lose weight, but as a health management tool. Talk to your kids about what sports and activities they enjoy, and how those activities benefit them from a physical and mental health perspective.
Help your kids understand that looking a certain way has no bearing on what kind of person you are on the inside.
Help your kids develop a healthy relationship with food
Body image issues are often paired with a destructive relationship with food. Young people are bombarded with all kinds of food-related messages that are designed to make them feel guilty for eating. This can lead to a lifetime of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder.
Encourage a healthy relationship with food by doing the following:
Don’t insist on a “clean plate” at every meal. If a child says they are “full”, they are listening to the signals coming from their body, and that is something to be celebrated, not punished.
Respect food preferences. Ensure that your child is receiving the nutrients they need to be healthy, but don’t force them to eat foods they hate.
Give your child some agency when it comes to food choices. Use grocery shopping trips as educational opportunities, and allow your child to choose some items.
Don’t impose a blanket ban on foods that are regarded as “fattening”. The goal should always be a healthy eating plan, but prohibitions on foods like chocolate and burgers could lead to your child seeking them out without your knowledge.
Turn body positivity into a fun activity
Nothing conveys a message to a child like a game, and there are several fun ways to teach kids how to be confident with the bodies they have.
Body swap game
Cut out pictures of models and celebrities from magazines. Print out some pictures of your child, and cut the heads off the pictures. Have your child place “their” head onto the pictures of the models, and talk to them about how the body they have is the one that’s best for them.
Make a photo collage
This activity can be done with physical or digital photos. Encourage your child to gather some pictures that reflect their life. This could include photos of the family, friends, pets, activities, and vacations. Help your child assemble the pictures into a collage, and use this to generate a conversation about how we are so much more than what we look like. This activity is a great way to help kids who are preoccupied with the way they look.
Find real-life heroes
Children are big fans of superhero stories. They love the idea of people who can change the world and save societies. Turn this interest into a game: whenever you are out and about, challenge them to point out as many real-life heroes as they can. These could include a favourite teacher, a hardworking store clerk, or someone who is spotted picking up litter and putting it into a garbage can. This helps children understand that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and that the impact someone has on the people around them matters more than what they look like.
Listen when your child needs to talk
Childhood and adolescence can be challenging times. Young minds sometimes have trouble processing negative things that happen to them, such as nasty comments and destructive social media influences. Ensure that your children grow up knowing that their lines of communication with you are always open. If they express feeling troubled by their body image, allow them to express their doubts and fears. Let them talk about how they feel. By identifying why they feel the way they do, you will be better equipped to help them overcome their difficulties.
The Somatofulness Approach
Body image issues do not come from being a certain weight or looking a certain way. They come from our own dissatisfaction with how we look. This in turn stems from a lack of connection with our bodies. By fostering an awareness of the life energy that flows through our bodies, we can strengthen that connection and unlock the potential to experience the fullness of life. Through a series of workshops and programs, we can help you and your family form those essential connections with your bodies, so that you can live your lives with confidence and joy.