– Ann Moore, Ph.D., Psychologist
Beginning at a young age, girls have a desire to be beautiful.
“You’re learning who you are. You’re worrying about self-esteem issues, how you look,” 17-year-old Ginny says.
For some girls, the focus is on weight – the thinner, the better.
“The media just sort of drills it in, that this is the ideal body image, and you sort of feel the need to live up to that expectation,” says Robin, 16.
Friends Robin, Ginny and Halle agreed to an experiment designed to test their self-perception. Each was given a sheet of paper lined with silhouettes of various body images. They were asked to circle the image they felt best matched their own body.
After calculating their weight and height, each girl then circled an image that actually matched those numbers. The result turned out to be a thinner image than the one they originally chose. Why did the teens think they were heavier than they actually were?
“Everybody’s harder on themselves than they should be,” says Halle, 17.
According to a Georgia State University study of 14,000 high school students, a distorted body image increases the risk that a girl will attempt suicide.
One reason: media images that are unrealistic.
“[They get the message that], ‘This is who you should be, and this is what you should look like, this is the ideal,’ and the ideal isn’t even real,” says psychologist Dr. Ann Moore, program director for the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders.
Robin, Ginny and Halle each say they have a pretty healthy self-image but recognize the potential danger for teens who don’t.
“If you have a really distorted body image, a lot of times you can start hurting yourself in totally unhealthy ways – crazy diets and anorexia and bulimia, or if you’re a guy, over-exercising your muscles,” Halle says.
The experts agree. They say parents can help counter a negative self-image by teaching their children, especially girls who are sometimes more vulnerable, how to focus on the things that are really important.
“[By] recognizing that she’s intelligent, recognizing that she’s got a lot of spunk, recognizing that she’s funny, that she’s got a great sense of humor. All of those things are much more important than what somebody looks like,” Dr. Moore says.
Tips for Parents
What is body image? The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines body image as how one sees oneself when looking in a mirror or how one pictures oneself in one’s mind. Body image includes how a person feels not only about his or her weight but also height and shape.
It is important to understand that body images can be positive or negative. The NEDA cites the following descriptions for both a positive and negative body image:
Positive body image:
■Having a clear, true perception of one’s shape (seeing the various parts of the body as they really are)
■Celebrating and appreciating one’s natural body shape and understanding that a person’s physical appearance says very little about his or her character and value as a person
■Feeling proud and accepting of one’s unique body and refusing to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight and calories
■Feeling comfortable and confident in one’s body
Negative body image:
■Having a distorted perception of one’s shape (perceiving parts of the body unlike they really are)
■Being convinced that only other people are attractive and that one’s body size or shape is a sign of personal failure
■Feeling ashamed, self-conscious and anxious about one’s body
■Feeling uncomfortable and awkward in one’s body
So how can you determine if your teen has a negative body image and whether or not he or she is in danger? The experts at Chicago Parent magazine suggest looking for these trouble signs in your teen:
■Engaging in excessive exercise or training that isn’t required for his or her athletic activities at school and that intrudes on other important activities
■Engaging in sports for the sole purpose of improving appearance
■Having a preoccupation with looking like the extremely thin women or muscular men in the media
■Using large quantities of dietary supplements, such as creatine or protein powders, or steroids, such as ephedrine or androstenedione
■Experiencing sharp fluctuations in weight
■Fasting, attempting extreme diets or using laxatives, diuretics or other dangerous techniques to lose weight
■Feeling like he or she never looks good enough
■Needing frequent reassurance that he or she “looks OK”
■Thinking, worrying about and feeling distressed about his or her appearance
■Allowing his or her appearance concerns to limit social activities or negatively affect school or job performance
■Avoiding having all or part of his or her body seen by others (avoiding locker room situations or wearing clothes that alter or disguise his or her body)
If you recognize any of the signs previously listed, it is important that you talk with your teen about these issues as soon as possible. Whether your son or daughter has a negative body image, the University of South Florida suggests the following tips to help guide your discussion:
■Tell your teen how important it is that he or she identifies and accepts his or her strengths and weaknesses. Remind him or her that everyone has them and that no one is perfect.
■Remind your teen that goals must be realistic and he or she must take pride in his or her achievements.
■Tell your teen not to be someone else but to be proud of whom he or she is.
■Have your teen explore his or her own talents and learn to love and appreciate the unique person he or she has become.
As a parent, it is important to remember that you play a crucial role in how your teen feels about his or her body. You are often his or her role model, and your teen learns from what you say and do. To be a positive role model and to help prevent your teen from developing a negative body image, the NEDA suggests the following strategies:
■Consider your thoughts, attitudes and behaviors toward your own body and the way that these beliefs have been shaped by the forces of weightism and sexism.
■Educate your teen about the genetic basis for the natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes and the nature and ugliness of prejudice.
■Make an effort to maintain positive, healthy attitudes and behaviors.
■Avoid conveying messages that will lead your teen to believe he or she needs to look more like a model and fit into smaller clothes.
■Learn about and discuss with your teen the dangers of trying to alter one’s body shape through dieting, the value of moderate exercise for health and the importance of eating a variety of foods in well-balanced meals consumed at least three times a day.
■Make a commitment not to avoid activities, such as swimming, sunbathing, dancing, etc., simply because they call attention to your weight and shape.
■Make a commitment to exercise for the joy of feeling your body move and grow stronger, not to purge fat from your body or to compensate for calories eaten.
■Help your teen appreciate and resist the ways in which television, magazines and other media distort the true diversity of human body types and imply that a slender body means power, excitement, popularity or perfection.
■Encourage your teen to be active and to enjoy what his or her body can do and feel like. Do not limit his or her caloric intake unless a physician requests that you do this because of a medical problem.
■Do whatever you can to promote the self-esteem and self-respect of your teen in intellectual, athletic and social endeavors. Give boys and girls the same opportunities and encouragement. A well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem are perhaps the best antidotes to dangerous dieting and a negative body image.
■Georgia State University
■National Eating Disorders Association
■University of Delaware
■University of South Florida