How to Build Healthy Body Image in Preteens
You may have wondered how your clueless tomboy daughter suddenly turned into a selfie-wielding, body-obsessed Narcissus. You’re right to be concerned about preteen kids’ perceptions and feelings about their looks. But what you may not have realized is how much you’ve contributed, slowly and inadvertently, to your child’s body image.
Body image develops over time, in bits and pieces, from a much earlier age than you would expect.
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By age 2, toddlers can recognize themselves, and as soon as they have a concept of their own bodies, they begin to have doubts about them in comparison to others. Because this feels like such an early and innocent age, parents can sometimes miss the ways that they might be laying the foundation for body image issues later on. For example: parents may discuss weight (their own or others’), comment on size, or seek or give praise for appearances, within earshot of their toddlers. While no one comment is to blame for unhealthy body image issues in teenagers, it’s all part of a slow build that is surreptitiously building a perception that looks are an important measure of self-worth.
Studies have shown that nearly half of little girls between the ages of 3 and 6 already have concerns about being fat and wish to change some part of themselves. And kids as young as 5 express a desire for a body that is thinner than theirs.
By age 6, kids start internalizing these comparisons of bodies, and they start assigning value based on the messages they observe. These messages come from relatives, strangers, teachers, and friends, but mostly from you. Five- to 8-year-olds who think their moms or dads are unhappy with their bodies are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their own.
Learn how to build self-esteem in children.
Many times, these messages are unintentional – offhand remarks we make about ourselves and others that kids overhear. They are simple, and seemingly innocuous. “Oh goodness, I’ve been eating so much, I better stay away from the ice cream tonight.” “Oof — this dress used to fit, back when I was working out…”
Each of these messages puts a suggestion into kids’ minds that appearances are a gauge of value. Until, by the time they are preteens, there are thousands of messages that combine into a feeling of anxiety about constant scrutiny based on appearance. Because if everyone’s always talking about it… it must be important!
This can be especially true for girls’ body image in their early teens. But body anxiety is a problem for both boys and girls, who, through the unrealistic images they see on TV and social media, are primed to worry constantly about how they compare to unachievable ideals.
So, what can parents do to build boys’ and girls’ body image?
Talk about what bodies do.
Talk about healthy, strong bodies and everything they do, rather than how they look. What are bodies for, anyway? Healthy, strong bodies help kids do amazing things, and accomplish great feats. Provide real-life role models of diverse people doing incredible things with their differently sized bodies.
Stop talking about others’ looks.
Leave comments about others’ appearances out of the conversation. Instead, show excitement about your child in realms other than looks: praise effort in school or on the football field, cheer when kids do something nice for others, do cartwheels when they exhibit creativity, initiative, perseverance, and actual talent.
Check your own issues at the door.
If you make self-deprecating comments about your appearance, obsessively check the scale, and buy the “bikini bods” tabloid just for fun… remember that your kid is watching. Pay attention to what you’re inadvertently communicating about body image through your actions. These subtle messages are powerful, and unfortunately, preteens and teens internalize them faster than we can undo them.
Explain unrealistic outside influences.
Use media and outside influences as an opportunity for critical thinking. For example, point out what is realistic and what is Photoshopped, or talk about how a real person could never look a certain way, or the hours of hair and make-up it takes many Instagram influencers to prepare for a photo shoot.
Amplify your presence.
Your involvement is your kid’s life is the biggest buffer against negative body image. When your kid talks to you about things you think are trivial, like choosing a profile picture, seize the opportunity. Use family gatherings to discuss things that you think are real indicators of value, such as certain types of effort or achievement. Avoid dinner table conversation about looks.
While it may seem trite, and particularly unhelpful in the face of prickly and uncommunicative teenagers, keep in mind: Research proves that your presence and influence is the single biggest asset they have in building healthy body image. You are more powerful than their friends, or what they sees on Instagram.