Body Image and Your Teen

The teenage years are a time of change. As they transition from children into young adults, teens must wrangle with new responsibilities, evolving relationships with friends and family, and a changing body. Unfortunately, that last change proves challenging for many pre-teens and teens. As they compare themselves to picture-perfect bodies in advertising, in movies, and on social media, many teens develop a negative image of their own body.

What Is Body Image?

Body image refers to the way a person thinks and feels about their own body. A person with healthy body image doesn’t necessarily think their body is perfect. Rather, they accept their body and feel comfortable with its appearance. Unhealthy body image, on the other hand, is characterized by feeling unhappy with one’s appearance and wishing to change it. While people with healthy body image can also aspire to change their body through diet and exercise, people with unhealthy body image obsessively scrutinize their appearance. Unhealthy body image may be paired with distorted body image, in which a person believes their body to appear different than it actually looks.

What Causes Negative Body Image?

As adults, we know the images we see in the media are carefully curated and heavily edited. But for teens, that’s not always obvious. Teens may view people in the public eye as having ideal bodies and resent themselves for not looking the same.

While media is influential, it’s not the only factor influencing teen body image. Teens may feel pressure from their peers to fit a certain idea of attractiveness. They may take a comment about their changing body negatively or hear friends and family talking about dieting and assume that their body also needs “improvement.” Teens prone to perfectionism in school may apply those same perfectionist views to their body, not realizing they’re holding themselves to unrealistic standards.

Why Is Healthy Body Image Important?

Healthy body image is an important component of self-esteem. Teens with good self-esteem are more likely to form healthy relationships, try new things, and cope with emotions in a healthy manner. A teen with poor self-esteem, on the other hand, may suffer in school, relationships, and at home because they think poorly of themselves.

Negative body image can also lead to serious health problems. Teens with unhealthy body image are at risk of developing an eating disorder. More than a diet gone wrong, eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that impact physical health as well. Teens with eating disorders may experience malnutrition, tooth decay, kidney damage, and heart disease, among other health consequences. As US News reports, eating disorders are also associated with increased rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Parents of teenagers should monitor for signs of eating disorders, like weight fluctuations, disappearing after meals, and avoiding plans that involve food.

How Can Parents Promote Healthy Body Image?

Healthy body image starts at home. Through their own behavior, parents model how children should view and treat their bodies. It’s important for parents to reflect on the example they’re setting for their children.

Here are some things parents can do to promote healthy body image in their teens:

  • Don’t criticize your body. Parents who constantly focus on their own flaws teach children that normal body features are things to dislike.
  • Don’t criticize your child’s body. Parents want their children to be healthy, but criticism isn’t the way to achieve that. If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, encourage healthy eating and exercise rather than commenting on appearances.
  • Value non-physical traits. Instead of praising your child’s looks, follow Nurture and Thrive’s advice to emphasize effort in areas she can control, like being a hard worker or a considerate friend.
  • Talk about media. Teach teens to be critical of the media they consume and discuss how most images in the media are heavily edited.

Not everyone can have a perfect body — in fact, very few people do. But everyone deserves to love their body no matter what it looks like. By modeling healthy body image at home and teaching teens to focus on their strengths, not their perceived flaws, parents can raise teens who feel good about their bodies and themselves.

Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash