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Helping your teen build a better body image

Sara takes nearly an hour to get dressed each morning, trying on one outfit after another only to toss them all in a corner with disgust, claiming they make her look fat. Shopping for clothes, especially bathing suits, is a nightmare, and she frequently skips lunch in an effort to shed pounds.

Sara may remind you of many people, perhaps even yourself. But Sara is only 13 years old, and her doctor says her weight is perfectly healthy. What’s not healthy about Sara is her body image—the way she sees herself—and how it affects her sense of worth. Many teens start to struggle with their body image as they begin puberty with a growth spurt. Others suffer because they haven’t had that spurt yet. As girls develop fuller hips and breasts, they may feel self-conscious and fat. As boys become gangly from a height-first growth spurt, they may try steroids or hormones to help their muscles catch up. Teens with poor body images are more likely to try risky supplements and fad diets, develop eating disorders and exercise compulsively. Or, they may turn to alcohol and drugs to soothe their unhappiness.

The messages kids get from magazines, movies and television are part of the problem—getting a handle on reality is difficult in an era when photos of fashion models are doctored to slim thighs, and professional athletes take hormones to bulk up. Your teenager’s ideal may be an impossible-to-achieve illusion of computer tricks and chemical and surgical enhancements.

What’s a parent to do? Encourage your teen to look at his or her accomplishments, not physical appearance, for a sense of self-worth and try these strategies:

  • Be media savvy. Explain how most media are created for a certain purpose—to sell, persuade or manipulate. Teach how to view and think about media critically. Talk about whether that waif model is really healthy.
  • Focus on health. Help your teen set goals of being strong, fit and vital. Plan healthy, nutritious family meals and encourage more physical activity. Take up a sport or join a gym together. Explain how diets don’t work because food deprivation causes the body to burn fuel more slowly. Discuss the hype and dangers surrounding many supplements.
  • Watch your own words. Think of the message you send when you call indulging in a piece of cake being “bad” or not eating all day being “good.” If you lament your own image in the mirror each morning or gush about how slim a friend looks, it reinforces the idea that a person’s worth is defined by his or her body.
  • Talk to your teen’s doctor. Seek additional help if your teen becomes obsessed with fixing his or her problem part or low self-esteem causes avoidance of social situations.