Scarleteen Confidential: Teens and Body Image
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Our societies are chock full of norms and ideals of beauty, and we all run up against them eventually. These norms and expectations often have a hand in shaping how we feel about our own bodies. When you're a teen and trying to sort out how to feel comfortable in your changing body, these messages can be very potent indeed. Sadly, what is defined as desirable, fit, or beautiful is often based on a very narrow ideal of the human body, rather than on the diverse and wonderful reality of human appearance.
Adolescence involves dramatic changes to your appearance (boobs! hair in new places! acne in places you didn't even know you had!) and those changes are not generally seen as attractive. And now you've got to learn how to deal with what can feel like a whole new skin and body in relation to a narrow set of body images and expectations.
Given all that, it comes as no surprise that we see users expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies. There tends to be a gendered element to these worries, with young women being concerned about being too big or not being pretty enough. Young men tend to worry about looking weak or too "girly" in addition to not looking attractive. These feelings can often trigger anxiety or depression (or, if they're severe, an eating disorder).
"I have always had negative feelings about my body as I grew up with a grandmother who constantly put me down and still does, telling me I was too fat and needed to lose weight if I ever wanted boys to like me."
Feeling as though they're not desirable enough can also make teens more vulnerable to folks with bad intentions. Feeling like your partner is being generous by dating you in spite of your appearance does not set one up to feel as though they have equal footing in a relationship. It's not uncommon to see someone stay with a toxic partner because they feel that "no one else will want me because of how I look."
So, what can you do - and what shouldn't you do - to help teens feel at home in their own skin?
First, examine your own attitudes and behaviors when it comes to bodies. Do you find yourself making snap judgments, or snide comments, about people based upon their appearance? Do you think that you can look at someone and immediately discern their habits and whether or not they're healthy? If you do, then I encourage you to re-examine those ideas, and see how many of them are actually based in evidence rather than stereotype.
"My mom knows she's "not allowed" to comment on my weight, but I know her well enough to know what's going on in her head. That I would be "better" if I lost 30 pounds and became more conventionally attractive. That one day I'm going to wake up, realize fat=bad, magically stop loving baked goods and ride off into the sunset with some guy. I love her, but she's one of those ladies who can't watch an awards ceremony without evaluating every single woman's body, assessing their gains and losses, ect."
For example, the concept of attractive is something that is socially constructed and reinforced. There is nothing inherently more desirable about blonde hair, yet it is seen as sexier in many cultures. Ditto body shape. Being skinny is not objectively better than having some chubbiness to you. We've just decided culturally that one is healthier and sexier than the other. So please don't push teens to change their bodies because they don't conform to the norm.
In that vein, it also helps to remember that people's bodies (including teenagers') are their own. They do not exist for your approval. It may be that you feel genuine concern about their health, but it's better in the long run if they get to figure out how to care for their bodies in a way that works for them. If they are trying to do something like lose weight for health reasons, evidence suggests that being supportive and body positive helps them do that, while being shaming or negative actually makes it harder for them to reach their fitness goals.
While we're on the subject of what not to do, please don't prize thinness above all else. I know people who, for various reasons, had lost an amount of weight that meant they were very, very thin. They were praised by family for how good they looked, in spite of the fact that their weight loss was due to some intense and not entirely good life changes. One had an eating disorder. When they started to gain weight as part of their recovery, they were criticized by family for putting on weight. Let's just say that reaction was the opposite of helpful.
Understand too that not every body acts the same way, and some people will have a lifestyle that matches all the parameters of "healthy" and still not be thin. Conversely, someone who is thin may not have the "healthiest" habits. Being body positive means you stop assuming that you can know everything about a persons habits and wellness just by looking at their body. Also, do not just assume that because someones body is not personally appealing to you (or how you would want your own body to look) that they must be unhappy with how it looks.
Something else to do is acknowledge just how varied and personal attraction is. Even putting aside the fact that most people don't choose a partner based on physical appearance alone, the reality of the world is that we all have different preferences in terms of what we find sexy or attractive. If some of your concern is coming from a place of "but if they're not conventionally attractive, they won't be able to find a partner" trust me when I say that this is not the case (and, honestly, their having confidence in their body will serve them well regardless of whether or not they want a romantic relationship).
Try to focus less on appearance as a measure of someone's value and instead focus on their actions and qualities as a person. Looks are less of an indicator of someones talents, traits, and worth than...well pretty much anything. To phrase it another way, would you rather help raise a person who valued courage, intelligence, kindness, ambition, etc, or someone whose primary concern was being considered attractive?
You can also encourage teens to experiment with how they choose to present their body, and allow them the space to do so. That may be exploring different types of clothes, hair colors, or make-up. Doing this accomplishes two things. First, it drives home the point that their body is theirs, to do with what they wish. Secondly, it gives them a chance to figure out what mode(s) of self-presentation make them feel best about their body.
You can also talk with teens in your life about how they feel about their bodies, and how they think bodies should look. This opens a chance for you to talk about just how many of the images of bodies we see on a daily basis have been manipulated to show a narrow range of images. How do they feel about the images they see in ads and on T.V? Do they feel like they can't compare to those images? Or do they feel that they are unrealistic?
If they are expressing a desire to change their body, encourage them to focus less on vague notions of health, and instead on concrete actions. Instead of "lose weight," it might be better to set a goal of "go hiking twice a week" or "try out Pilates," or "take the dog for two walks a day" or "see if I can work up to running 5 miles." Those goals are concrete, and focus more on the experience and process of being in ones body and moving it rather than trying to shrink it down to a particular size.
The same goes with diet changes. Do not set up an adversarial relationship with food, in which food is something to be grudgingly consumed out of necessity. Teenager are going through some major physical changes, and they have pretty heavy demands on their energy and minds throughout the day. They need to eat in order to get through all that, so do not teach them that food is their enemy, as that can make them feel guilty for trying to take care of their bodies. If they want to change their eating habits, make it something you do together. Try cooking together, or trying new, nutritious foods together. Again, make it about a habit that they can develop, rather than about how little they can eat.
Finally, pay attention to how you talk about and treat your own body in front of the teens in your life. Even if you're being supportive of them and their bodies, they'll notice if you don't apply those same rules to yourself. If, for instance, you tell them that all bodies are beautiful, yet you talk about how much you wish you weighed less and go on diets all the time, odds are they're picking up on those mixed signals and are wondering about what you really think about people who aren't skinny. It helps to apply some of the same approaches you use with teens to your own body, and learn to be more gentle and accepting of the body you have. That way, you help create a space where both teens and you can feel happy and comfortable in your own skin.