By Sara Rider
On March 9, 1959, Mattel introduced a new doll at the American Toy Fair in New York City. She was called Barbie®. And to say that she looked just like every average girl in America would be very far from the truth. But for the little girls who played with her, she became part of the ideal of how a girl should look.
Fast forward more than 50 years. Barbie® may no longer reign supreme, but Monster High’s® Frankie Stein® and Venus McFlytrap® have taken Barbie’s thin arms and legs to new levels of unreasonable expectation. It’s all part of the unrealistic body images that our teens and pre-teens face. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health (OWH), it can be harmful to self-esteem and to health.
Many teenage girls believe they are overweight – even when they are not. If girls have extreme concerns about their weight, OWH cautions, it can actually harm their social, physical and emotional growth.
“Body image is a significant issue among preteen and teen youth, particularly impacting girls,” explains Seanna Crosbie, LCSW, director of program services at Austin Child Guidance Center. “Our culture gives youth so many messages about what is considered ‘beautiful,’ rather than embracing differences.”
A wide variety of factors can harm a teen’s body image. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can include natural weight gain that can be part of puberty mixed with media images that promote the idea of a thin female body. A teen’s body image can also be influenced by a mother’s personal concern about her own weight or her daughter’s weight or appearance, according to Mayo.
Although boys aren’t immune from the pressure to meet a certain body image, girls face the hardest challenge. When a girl is not satisfied with her body, OWH cautions, it can cause her to skip meals or take diet pills. It can hurt a teen’s nutrition and lead to problems with learning. The Mayo Clinic adds depression and eating disorders to the list of possible problems that can result from a teen’s poor self body image and resulting feelings of inadequacy.
“For girls, much of their self-esteem is overly connected to their appearances. Too much focus has been placed on girls’ bodies as a way of determining self-worth,” cautions Crosbie.
Striking a balance
In the midst of media images that set up unreasonable expectations of how girls should look, there are ways to help your teen. OWH reminds parents that their children are actually listening to what they say – and watching what they do. So your own behavior when it comes to body image matters. A mother who always complains about her weight or her body shape reinforces the message that these things are important. And OWH warns that you can make the problem worse by trying trendy diets instead of focusing on a healthy mix of good nutrition and increased activity. Without this type of healthy balance, children and teens can face health problems at both ends of the scale, from obesity at one end to eating disorders at the other.
A heart to heart
If you think your teen may be overly concerned about body image, it’s probably time to have a conversation – or more than one. The Mayo Clinic advises that talking with your daughter about body image can help her be more comfortable with her body shape and relate to food in a healthy way. A conversation should include things like the reality that body shapes vary from person to person, and that genetics play a very large role in anyone’s shape. Your daughter may have inherited the genes for her grandmother’s long legs or her father’s short legs, and there isn’t much that can be done about it. OWH also reminds parents to emphasize that some weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty. And it probably won’t hurt to remind her that not everyone can use a bow and arrow as well as Katniss nor have Jennifer Lawrence’s build, because media images are everywhere and they are incessant.
“It can be awkward to talk to your child about this topic,” admits Crosbie, “but having an open dialogue about media/marketing messages will help them process the messages.”You can also counter media messages about how women should look by making certain your daughter knows about women who have achieved great things, advises OWH, and are famous for those accomplishments, not for how they look on the red carpet.
Get healthy, stay healthy
Striking back also means establishing habits that can help lead to a long, healthy life. OWH advises having plenty of healthy snacks in the house, and letting your child choose what he or she wants. You should also encourage exercise – and that means setting the example by exercising yourself. Less time watching television or playing computer games is also an important step toward healthier habits. The Mayo Clinic also advises encouraging your daughter to participate in sports or other physical activities to promote a positive body image and good self-esteem.
If, despite your best efforts, you think your teen is developing unhealthy habits to try meet expectations for her shape and weight, you may want to talk to your doctor about what would be a healthy body mass index for your teen. Doctors can also help detect early signs of an eating disorder.
“Some children and teens develop more serious issues, such as an eating disorder, that require professional intervention,” cautions Crosbie. “Symptoms of an eating disorder include inadequate food intake, significant weight loss or weight gain, over exercising, binging on food or vomiting food.”
Although these types of problems once seemed to be only the domain of girls, Crosbie points out that boys are beginning to feel some of the same pressure when it comes to body image.
“Research is showing that boys are becoming increasingly impacted by this pressure as well,” warns Crosbie. “A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics reported that ‘high concerns’ were common among boys and men as it related to muscular body image.”
So how can parents help both boys and girls navigate the teen years so that their children can develop a healthy sense of self?
“Encourage your child to embrace differences from an early age, and see beauty within these differences,” suggests Crosbie. “Parents can help build a healthy sense of self-esteem by sharing with [their] child the reasons [they] love and care for him or her by focusing on WHO they are.”
And that’s a message we can all feel good about repeating.