How to help our t(w)eens develop a positive body image
Combining her accomplishments as a teacher, coach, therapist, mentor, sacred space holder and her admiration for women everywhere, Niki Moss Simpson launched SHINE. SPARKLE. RADIATE in 2017. In 2019, Niki launched her first book as co-author of the best selling Pay It Forward series: Notes to My Younger Self. In another exclusive blog for MumAbroad, Niki talks about adolescents and body image.
● By the time girls reach the tender age of 17, 78% will be “unhappy with their bodies”.
● The Dove Self-Esteem Project found 47% of girls aged 11-14 refuse to take part in activities that might show their bodies in any way.
● 70% of the editorial content in teen mags for girls focuses on beauty and fashion.
● The “ideal” woman – portrayed by models, Miss America, Barbie dolls, actresses and celebrities – is 5’5, weighs 100 pounds and wears a size 5. https://absoluteconfidence.com/lots-of-statistics-research-on-negative-body-image-in-women
SHOCKING STATISTICS right?
So let’s get some clarity here; body image is what we think and how we feel about our physical selves. It is influenced by external factors such as media, society and culture. So where and when we live, what we see or hear in the media and what others who influence us say about bodies, affects our own perception. Our bodies are also influenced by internal factors like our genetics, and body image may be passed down through family generations or shared to others.
FACT: our bodies change throughout our lives – we grow, change shape, age.
In the ever so present Information Age, a person receives an average of 105,000 influential words per day, through media, internet and apps. Add images and graphics to the mix and the average human will be exposed to 34GB of information each day – enough to fry my brain and overload a laptop within a week! This overload, especially of “perfect” human body messages, can lead to unhealthy and negative body image and our t(w)eens, looking for role models, are highly influenceable. According to Gail Saltz, health editor of the Child Mind Institute, our society seems to be fixated, more than ever, on youth and beauty. And beauty is, more than ever, defined as small. Or, to be more precise, small-plus-hot — so that even someone who’s stunningly thin can feel insecure if she’s not also well endowed where it counts. Herein lies the problem for us as parents.
How can we help?
Here are my suggestions
*** Firstly, it simply does not work to try to pretend the pressure to be model-thin and drop-dead gorgeous doesn’t exist, or lecture our kids on how appearance has nothing to do with who they are. They are t(w)eens right? So they’ll just believe that you’re completely out of touch and not worth listening to. You will have lost the battle even before you begin.
*** Do listen to your daughter’s worries, acknowledge the reality of her feelings, and let her know that you’ve wrestled with feelings about your less-than-perfect body, too. Saying “Yeah, look, I was never in love with my knees” for example, conveys that while you’ve suffered, too, it didn’t dominate your life, or prevent you being who you wanted to be, or doing what you wanted to do.
*** Shield your t(w)eens, for as long as you can, from the most sexualized and body-obsessed parts of popular culture including everything from adverts selling sexy undies for little girls, magazines, songs or serials that focus on being “sexy” as a way of getting far in life. It won’t be easy because all her friends will be equally influenced by these messages which eventually become “the norm”.
*** Appearance is something that all t(w)eens get caught up in at some time or another and not surprisingly so as it seems to be a way that society weighs a persons value. Most of us are not going to love every single bit of us always, but we deal with it. If your t(w)een becomes overly focused on an aspect of her appearance you can help by being sympathetic, but also confident that whatever she doesn’t like about herself is not insurmountable without resorting to plastic surgery! Let her know that no one is perfectly thrilled with their physical appearance even top models, actors and celebs but we are who we are and that makes us unique and special.
.*** Physical sports and activities are invaluable and wonderful for boosting happy hormones, toning muscles, building stamina and resilience, warding off stress and anxiety and for socialising with others so that young people can enjoy their body. Having a healthy body is more important than the size of muscles or how slim you are. So building a habit of exercise will help set your t(w)een up for a healthy lifestyle. You need to be a model for that too. It’s counterproductive to extol the virtues of exercise if you yourself do nothing. Be aware and lead by example if you want your t(w)een to follow.
*** Mothers – my dears, how you talk about your own body influences your daughter hugely so be careful with your words and behaviour when your daughter is with you. If Mom is complaining every time she puts on a piece of clothing that her butt looks big or wondering out loud about which outfit looks sexier, that’s what daughters is going to absorb. You should model, whenever possible, body comfort, acceptance, and appreciation for what your body allows you to do.
*** Mealtimes are vital times for many reasons and should be about enjoyment, about family time, about nutrition. You can encourage your daughter to eat healthily and be positive about being healthy, but if you then criticize yourself for eating that chocolate cake, or moan “I shouldn’t have indulged; this is going straight to my butt!”, it’s not going to help. She is looking to you as a role model and this is what you will teach her.
*** Self expression in terms of clothing is always a contentious area with t(w)eens but I wonder how much freedom we should give our young girls who, in copying role models, wish to dress provocatively. It is such a fine line for us parents to walk as our girls start to develop womanly bodies and fashion stresses seduction and sexiness as dress code. If a girl gets lots of attention for dressing sexily, what she’s processing is that she’s being valued for how big her boobs are, or how long her legs are rather than how hard she worked to write her English essay, learn her French verbs or complete her Science project. What image do we as mothers project? Whilst sexuality and the expression of is so important for women, protecting our daughters for early sexualisation is absolutely vital.
*** Teenage boys can have body image issues too. The media widely focuses on the struggles young women have with how they look. Eating disorders affect more than young, thin, white women and girls. They can affect people of all backgrounds, ages, races, and genders. Our young men feel a certain pressure to be strong, tall, athletic, emotionless, high-earners and so male body dissatisfaction has tripled over the past 25 years, according to the Australian Psychological Society. Many t(w)een boys become addicted to exercise using weights to increase muscle mass or take protein drinks or adopt a high protein diet to bulk up, feeling that society will value them more. Help your sons by explaining that they shouldn’t feel pressured to aim for a certain physical appearance. Rather, aiming for a healthy, balanced lifestyle is key. Introducing t(w)eens to body neutrality can be a good first step towards helping them feel comfortable.
*** Encourage role models of all shapes and sizes. When Cosmo magazine used a size 24 model on the front cover, the backlash was huge. People just weren’t used to this marketing image from glossy magazines but by seeing more bodies of different shapes, sizes, and kinds of beauty, we can help show young people that there isn’t a singular ideal of what we should all want to look like. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ body’. By showing t(w)eens a wider range of bodies, we can help them to accept and grow to love themselves no matter what shape, size, or imperfections they may worry they have.
*** Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)while rare, can affect people of any age, at any time. It is a fear of being judged and affects an estimated 1% of the UK population. It typically starts during puberty when young people are the most sensitive about the way they look. What you can look out for includes; spending significant periods of time looking at themselves in mirrors or avoiding them altogether, wearing excessive makeup, or expressing a desire for cosmetic surgery. Other signs can include being anxious around others, comparing their appearance to others, developing obsessive behaviours (such as brushing or styling their hair excessively, trying to cover perceived flaws with makeup), or wearing baggy clothing to disguise their body shape. Seek help from a professional if you think your t(w)een may be suffering.
*** Encourage a positive mindset as teaching t(w)eens to focus on the positives and redirect their thoughts to their skills, characteristics, passions, or abilities can help to counter negative body image. Do be careful not to dismiss off-hand their comments about their body image if they do resort to negative talk as this can come across as patronizing or dismissive to them. Respond in an interested manner, encouraging them to explore why they feel this way and try to eliminate any negative influencers they have.
*** Focus on health over image and try to bring the emphasis back around to the importance of being healthy and happy over thin or muscular. Have conversations about nutrition and how it can help and support t(w)eens in a positive way in terms of strong, supple and reliable bodies. Yoga, mindfulness and meditation are excellent ways for us all to really get in touch with our bodies and our t(w)eens can benefit greatly from these practices.
In speaking openly with my 19 year old daughter recently about the whole subject of body image she said,
“there is nothing wrong with being slim as long as you are healthy and treat your body with care and nurture. Accepting your body and feeling confident in your skin means not changing how you look because you want to look like someone else. Having a healthy physical body also helps maintain a healthy mind, which means healthy and positive thoughts, beliefs and ideas about yourself and others. Exercise is something powerful, it allows you to get out of the house, get some fresh air, change scenery, move your body, release endorphins (happy hormones), let your mind wander, help concentration, and keep your overall body happy and healthy.”
So dear, ever so weary parents, my final words are that you are not alone in your concern about your t(w)eens developing body image and the challenges we all face with such prolific images of perceived “perfect bodies”. Media, social media and influencers do not make our jobs easy as parents when encouraging our kids to value and aim for healthy strong bodies. But with keeping the dialogue open, and listening and supporting your t(w)een at home in a positive way, by the time they hit 19, like my daughter, your darlings should also see body image in a more relaxed and balanced way.
Proud of you Eliza!