“I’m thinking about getting a boob job for graduation,” announced 17 year old Lindsay* in our session last month.
Yes, you heard right. Lindsay is only 17 and graduating from high school next month. She is smart, outgoing and beautiful , both inside and out. She however, sees flaws when she looks in the mirror. She sees a crooked nose, a pudgy stomach, bulky thighs, and a flat chest. Lindsay is recovering from an eating disorder. She is weight restored and able to nourish her body adequately yet her negative view of herself and her body persists.
Unfortunately, body dissatisfaction is common and not just with people with eating disorders. Studies have found that 40% of 9 and 10 year old girls have tried to lose weight and 53% of 13 year olds are unhappy with their bodies. This increases to 78% by the time girls reach 17. This is not surprising considering our children are inundated with constant media messages about beauty and perfection.
How can you help your child love her body? Here are five points to remember.
1. Avoid criticizing your own body. If you talk negatively about your body, whether complaining about a flabby tummy or crows feet, you are sending a message that your body is not good enough. Model a healthy, positive body image even if it doesn’t come naturally. Say words like “my body feels strong today because I was able to work, garden and be mom today.” Focus on what your body can do rather than appearance and your child will also.
2. Avoid talking about others people’s bodies. Many times conversations about other people’s bodies and weights can cause everyone within listening distance to question their body. Imagine a 12 year old overhearing “Wow, have you seen Sarah? She’s gained so much weight!” Likewise, imagine a 12 year old overhearing “Ann has lost so much weight, she looks fabulous!” Both of these comments, even the compliment, send messages that gaining weight is negative, losing is positive, and bodies need to look a certain way. Become adept at steering conversation away from appearance and instead on attributes.
3. Remember that a girl’s body continues to change until they reach early 20’s. During this time girls will experience linear growth and a corresponding weight gain. Hormones cause necessary fat deposition in the pelvis, breasts, upper back and arms and lean body mass decreases from 80% of body weight in early puberty to 75% at maturity. It is not abnormal for a girl to gain 40 pounds over this time.
Because everyone experiences growth at varying rates, your 12 year old may be in class with girls who weigh 70 pounds and girls who weigh 115 pounds. Assure her that everyone eventually catches up and by the time her peers are high school seniors there will be less discrepancy in body weight.
4. Watch what you watch. Many parents screen media for sex and violence but neglect screening for “eating disorder porn.” Eating disorder porn are images that depict unrealistic thinness and body shapes. Obviously these images are ubiquitous! Limit buying magazines and watching TV shows to those who depict realistic bodies. Educate your child about the numerous techniques used to retouch photos. Encourage your child to think critically about the messages unrealistic body shapes and sizes send.
5. Love your child for who she is rather than what she looks like. Be sure to tell her what you personality characteristics you appreciate about her. For example say “I admire how you handled that sticky situation” or “You have been a good friend to Julie.” These comments help to develop her character and deemphasize appearance.
Pam Chin-Lai, MS, RD, LD, CEDRD specializes in the nutritional rehabilitation of eating disorders in children, adolescents and adults.