Teen Body Image Issues [Guest Post]

by Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, LCSW at Picture Perfect Body Image.
I see a lot of tween and teen girls in my practice of psychotherapy, and many of them have problems with their body image.  Some feel bad about their bodies because they don’t have as many curves as their friends, but most feel bad because they think they’re too “fat.”  “I want to lose weight”—I’ve heard this from hundreds of girls, some as young as 9 years old.  As parents, it may be hard to believe that our wonderful daughters don’t see the beauty in themselves.  But I think parents need to be aware that most girls do struggle with body image at one time or another.

Many factors influence a girl’s body image, or how she thinks, feels, and experiences her body.  These can include:

  1. her ethnicity
  2. the community she lives in
  3. sports she plays
  4. how and when her body changes and develops
  5. how family and friends react to her body, and how they feel about their own bodies
  6. accidents or illnesses
  7. abuse

Media images also can influence a girl’s body image.  These images often give girls the idea that they should look like a prescribed, usually very thin, body type in order to be considered “popular” and attractive.  These images are often photo-shopped and airbrushed, and our girls are bombarded by them.  In fact,  studies show that by the time a girl is 12, her mind has been exposed to more than 77,000 advertisements!

These images do affect our girls.  Studies show that 50% of teen girls say advertisements frequently make them feel the need to lose weight; research also tells us that 77% of girls between 10 and 14 feel fat, ugly, depressed and/or disgusting when they look at pictures of models and celebrities.  Even girls in the 1st grade have reported that they wish they were thinner!

So how can we, as parents, help our girls?  One way is to encourage them to give themselves positive self messages—I call these “Special Statements” in my book, Picture Perfect:  What You Need To Feel Better About Your Body.   Special Statements, such as “I’m strong, not fat” or “I’m a creative chick, not a carbon copy!” can help neutralize negative body image messages that girls are exposed to everyday.  They can also help increase a girl’s self esteem and self-care behavior.

Here are a few more tips:

1.  Be a good role model!  Don’t complain about your weight, appearance, or body parts in front of your daughter!

A mom’s attitude about her own body is another important factor in how a girl thinks and feels about her body.  When you model healthy habits, provide healthy food choices (without excluding treats!), and are self-accepting about your body shape, you’ll give your daughter the message that not all women hate their bodies or obsess about their appearances.  Most importantly, your daughter will see that she has the positive choice of accepting herself, like Mom.

2. If your daughter tells you she wants to go on a diet, tell her, “Let’s check it out with your doctor to make sure it’s healthy for you.”

Many times, moms and daughters have power struggles about food and weight. For example, if your daughter says she wants to cut down on “junk food” and you see her wolfing down a candy bar, it may be tempting to point this out to her—which may lead to a fight. This strategy puts the “diet issue” in the hands of your pediatrician, and takes it out of arguments between you and your daughter.

If the doctor says its okay to lose weight, she can discuss this with your daughter and help her develop a healthy meal plan to accomplish the goal.  Of course, you’d be a part of the plan (for example, you have to know what kind of food to have in the house).  But when a doctor or nutritionist works with a girl towards a realistic and healthy weight goal, this circumvents mother/daughter power struggles around food, weight, exercise and so on.  It also helps your daughter take more responsibility for developing healthy habits.

But—your pediatrician may say that your daughter is at a good weight for her height and should stay that way.  In other words, it would not be healthy for her to lose weight.  If this is the case, the doctor can present a medical decision to your daughter that has nothing to do with appearance and everything to do with her health.  The medical decision will also help avoid mother/daughter power struggles.

3. Does your daughter feel bad about her body because she’s a late developer?  The best thing you can do is listen and offer support.

It’s hard to be one of the only girls in your class who still doesn’t have curves.  If your daughter experiences this, perhaps you did too when you were her age.  Your daughter may bristle when you tell her she’s beautiful just the way she is and that she will develop curves soon (after all, you’re her mom, what else are you going to say?), but that’s just what she needs to hear. She needs to be reassured that she will gain weight eventually and everything will be okay.

These tips are guaranteed to help you guide your daughter through the body image dilemmas she will encounter.  For more information and tips, check out my website at www.pictureperfectbodyimage.com.

All best,

Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, M.S.W., LCSW

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