How To Help Your Teen Develop A Healthy Body Image

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Teenagers today can’t avoid it. In magazines, on TV, in ads, and especially all over social media, young people—both male and female—are bombarded with images of how they should look. It’s no wonder most of them feel they’re too fat, too thin, too short, too tall or not attractive enough.

Deborah V. Tesler, MD, FAAP

Sure, there are messages out there telling them to be happy with the way they look and to ignore body shaming, but the idealized, air-brushed representations of beauty are far more prevalent. These almost impossible-to-obtain images can easily cause teens to have a negative body image, which is often linked to depression, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and other damaging behaviors.

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we know that teens’ body image is closely linked to their self-esteem, primarily because society and the media place so much importance on how we look. To help parents know how to navigate this emotionally-charged environment, we’ve written on body image and self-esteem but would like to offer further tips and advice here. Our goal is to help boys and girls develop a healthy perception of and appreciation for their bodies.

Body image: Something that affects everyone, male and female

Teenagers easily get the impression that fashion models, athletes and celebrities have perfect bodies and flawless skin, and they don’t. Boys are usually not as verbal about body image issues as girls are, but this doesn’t mean they don’t feel just as inadequate. More today than ever before, both sexes feel unworthy and that they don’t measure up.

The stigma of being overweight/underweight

Another serious body issue for teenagers is the social and emotional consequences of being overweight. Both genders are often bullied in school and/or online, can find it hard to make friends, and can easily become isolated. All of these can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and a negative body image.

And for many teens, being underweight can be just as stigmatizing, causing similar low self-esteem problems.

6 things you can do to help your teenager develop a better body image

As a way to start important conversations, here are some important tips we really like from the Mayo Clinic and Newport Academy that hopefully will help you approach the subject of body image with your teenager and maybe bring about a better way for them to think about themselves, inside and out.

1. Talk to your teen

Talking about body image with your son or daughter can go a long way to helping them feel comfortable with their weight, face, body and shape. Reassure your teen that healthy body shapes vary a great deal, and that there really is not one perfect way to look. Ask him/her what they like about themselves, and then explain what you like about them. Above all: Don’t underestimate how much your acceptance and praise means to your teen and the big role it can play in helping him/her develop healthy self-esteem and resilience.

2. Discuss media messages

Social media, TV shows, movies, music videos, websites, magazines and even some toys send the message that only a certain body type is acceptable and that maintaining an attractive appearance is the most important thing in life. At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we encourage you to pay attention to the messages your teen is being exposed to, and then discuss these with him/her. We also think it’s a good idea for teens to question what they see and hear, not simply accept it as the absolute truth.

3. Monitor internet use, especially social media

Teens use social networking sites to share pictures and receive feedback, which makes them very vulnerable to others’ judgments and self-conscious about their looks. The resulting feelings of “not being good enough” is why social media has been linked to depression, narcissism and negative body image issues, for both genders.

In fact, a survey by Common Sense Media reports that 35% of teenagers who are active on social media worry about people tagging them in unattractive photos. In addition, 27% report being stressed out about how they look when they post pictures, and 22% report feeling bad about themselves when no one comments on or “likes” the photos they post. Try setting limits on your teens’ internet use, as well as talking to them about what they’re posting and viewing.

4. Use positive language

Rather than talking about “fat” and “thin,” encourage your teen to focus on eating a healthy diet and staying physically active.

5. Encourage exercise

When done at healthy levels, physical activity helps teens feel strong and empowered, and can often help them with weight issues. However, obsessively over-exercising can be damaging for teens with body issues, so keep an eye on your child’s physical activity levels and consult your pediatrician or a mental heal professional if they are overdoing it.

6. Support positive relationships and friendships

Honest, caring support from peers, teachers, coaches, girlfriends/boyfriends and family members plays a very important role in how teens see themselves. These encouraging relationships enhance their overall self-esteem, which in turn, influences their body image.

Benefits of a positive body image

Young people who cultivate a healthy body image can, as a result, experience several important benefits:

  • Improved self-esteem and well-being: Feeling good about your body tends to lead to a positive outlook on your life in general and greater self-confidence.
  • Increased self-acceptance: A positive body image means that teens are more accepting of themselves, their bodies and how they look.
  • Healthier behaviors: Teens who have a positive body image are more likely to practice self-care, including eating well, getting adequate sleep, not smoking or doing drugs, avoiding risky sex, and exercising at a healthy level.

Helpful websites we recommend:

As well as tips and advice for parents of teens, count on us for all kinds of information to help you raise your kids.

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re raising teenagers, adolescents, toddlers or newborns, we’ve got years of experience helping parents take care of their children and we’re ready to help you with yours. Please come in and see us.

Want to know more about how to help your teen with body image? Come see us.

If you would like more advice and guidance on helping your teen develop a positive body image and greater self-esteem, or if you have questions about any aspects of your child’s health and well-being, please make an appointment to come in to see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. Together with you and your child, we’ll talk about ways to strengthen his or her sense of self-worth, confidence and purpose in life. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Deborah V. Tesler, MD, FAAP, Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball