Does your daughter frequently ask, “Do I look okay?” or “Does this outfit make me look fat?” You perhaps struggled with body hatred as a teen (and maybe still do), and you don’t want the same for your daughter. As females, we are inundated with images of how we “should” look. This can be tough to navigate as a woman, but for teens, it may seem impossible. Developmentally, teens are trying to fit in with peers, and appearance is a big part of this. Body dissatisfaction can lead to poor well-being. Studies show that poor body image in teens can lead to inactivity, unhealthy eating patterns such as purging (throwing up after eating), poor exercise patterns, weight gain, and even a full-blown eating disorder. Your teen may spend large amounts of time in front of the mirror worrying about her looks. Although it may seem like an impossible task to promote a positive body image with your daughter, it can be done. Here are six simple and effective ways to help your teen develop a positive body image:
1 | Take stock in your own body image
Body image is how you think about your body, not necessarily what it really looks like. Your daughter’s body image is influenced by your body image as well as peers’ attitudes about body size. Body image changes depending on mood, situation, and environment. For example, when you’re having fun with your kids, you may not have a lot of negative thoughts about your body. But if you’re getting ready for a party, you may experience some negative thoughts about your body. The first step in helping your daughter with her body image is to improve your own. You may have heard the saying “we can only take our kids as far as we have gone,” and this applies with body image as well. As you go through your day, notice what you think and say to yourself about your body. Often we are our own worse critics. If you notice that you say negative things, consider challenging those thoughts. Practice using kinder and more accurate words with yourself.
2 | Talk about normative changes that occur during puberty
During puberty, girls are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder and body image disturbance. Having conversations with your daughter about the normative changes that occur during puberty can be helpful. (I know you may get some push back in the form of eye rolls, but trust me, she is listening!) Teach your daughter that girls go through puberty at different ages and for different lengths of time. Puberty can start as early as eight or as late as 13. It can last as short as one-and-a-half years or take up to six years. Weight gain and changes in her body are normal parts of puberty. In fact, weight gain is needed in order to support the growth of breasts, initiation of the menstrual cycle, and height growth (up to three-and-a-half inches per year!).
3 | Teach media literacy
Studies show that exposure to images of thin models in the media for as little as five minutes can contribute to a negative body image. Help your teen understand that those images are altered or “photo-shopped” and the models have their hair, make-up, and wardrobe professionally done. In some cases, models and actresses are required to diet before a photo shoot. Those images are only one snapshot in time – not a representation of an entire person. In other words, photo-shoots and TV appearances do not reflect how women and girls look in real life. You may assume your daughter already knows this, which may or may not be true. Hearing it from you can be extremely powerful.
4 | Promote size and shape diversity
Body composition, size, and shape are highly genetic and change with age. One body size or type is not better than another, despite what the media says. It is not fair, accurate, or sensible to compare your body to a model’s as they are likely in this line of work because of their genetics. Just as our bodies may not be genetically predisposed to being a basketball player or a jockey, they may not be predisposed to being on the cover of Vogue either.
5 | Help your daughter explore her thoughts about her body
Unfortunately, it has become normative in our society to engage in “fat talk.” That is, it is sociably acceptable, particularly for women and girls, to engage in negative talk about foods eaten and body weight. If you are reading this, you may have already heard your daughter say disparaging remarks about her body, e.g. “My thighs are fat.” A well-intended reply to this statement might be something like, “No, they are not,” or “Wait until you get to my age, then you will know what fat is.” Instead of offering reassurance or self-disparagement, try to explore the meaning behind her statement. “Tell me more about that” can be a great conversation starter. Or, “Sounds like you may be concerned about your body. Did a get that right?” The idea here is to get your teen to continue to talk about her thoughts and feelings.
6 | Keep your daughter connected to her body so she can care for it
In this crazed diet culture of ours, we are told how to eat and how we should be exercising. Unfortunately, dieting disconnects us from our body. Instead of statements like, “I really should be jogging for exercise,” you may model something like this for your daughter instead: “Jogging really doesn’t feel good on my body. I enjoy hiking so much more.” Furthermore, lists of foods that we should and shouldn’t be eating or counting every calorie of food consumed further disconnects us from our bodies. Disconnection leaves us in our heads rather listening to our bodies. It is near impossible to not be influenced by the media about how we “should” look. Your daughter is inundated with messages, which can lead to constant pressure to look a certain way. Remember that these high standards are impossible to meet and can often leave your daughter feeling bad about herself. Don’t worry if you have had some slip-ups in regards to talking with you daughter about body image. One of the best things you can do to help your daughter develop a positive body image is to begin to consider your own body image. Dr. Thomas Cash’s “The Body Image Workbook” is a great place to start.