Teens: Weight and shape concerns
“Dad, am I fat?” asks my daughter when she was 13 years old, as she stared at her middle in the mirror. I would sigh to myself, when I heard that often-repeated question. If I said no, she would tell me that I was lying because I’m her father. If I said yes, then I have sentenced her to the worst fate of adolescence---“fathood.”
It shouldn’t surprise parents that teenage sons and daughters are so preoccupied with their appearance. Some of this is ordinary adolescent self-absorption (Teens are interested in themselves, themselves, and yes, themselves!). I remember asking my grandmother if I was handsome when I was 13. She told me that I was “adorable.” I wanted to shrink into the ground.
However, in my opinion, this current obsession with weight and shape has gone way overboard. And, unfortunately women are the main victims of this social preoccupation. Check out your teenage daughter’s magazines. The models look like they could use a good meal. Watch their television shows and movies. We have gone to extremes in defining female beauty. Only a few can fit into the jeans of these women. These days, male focus on weight and shape is a close second to their female counterparts.
How does this feminine ideal impact our daughters? Studies show that 73% of tweens want to be thinner. Another study reported that two thirds of high school students were on diets, although only 20% were actually overweight. Numerous studies have found that a girl’s self-esteem begins to plummet after puberty. Strong and confident 10-year-olds turn into anxious, insecure 14-year-olds. Physical appearance becomes the barometer for self-esteem and confidence.
Heaven forbid a teen is actually overweight! The intense suffering of even slightly overweight adolescents is extremely painful to behold. Their peers often ridicule heavy middle schoolers. These children can become isolated, withdrawn, and even clinically depressed.
Sadly, some teens develop eating disorders. While we don’t completely understand what causes eating problems, we do know that these concerns have a psychological, social, and biological basis. Interestingly, economically developed counties have the highest rates of these disorders.
From .5-3% of all teenagers develop anorexia nervosa. In this condition, youngsters literally starve themselves, losing between 15-60% of their body weight. These teens are terrified of becoming fat. Even when they become stick thin, they think that they are overweight. This condition can become life threatening if left untreated.
Bulimia, more common, is thought to affect between 4-10% of young women. In this disorder, girls alternate between restricting food, bingeing, and them purging themselves through vomiting or use of laxatives. This condition is often more difficult to diagnose since bulimics become skillful at hiding their bingeing and purging and often do not experience significant weight loss.
So what can parents do?
Develop a balanced approach to your own weight and shape. Everything starts with Mom and Dad. Studies show that children whose parents are obsessed with weight and shape are more likely to develop eating problems. In order to model a healthy, balanced approach to eating, body image, and self-esteem, parents must discover this balance in themselves. If we are to help our children, we must help ourselves first.
Promote family discussions on healthy eating and appearance. Teens give parents numerous opportunities to discuss body-image concerns. Reinforce the message that physical appearance is only one aspect of self. Remind children that most physical characteristics (body type, body structure, etc.) are genetically programmed and cannot be altered by dieting. Help adolescents focus on their character rather than calories. Be thoughtful about what you say to teens about their weight! Adolescents will take even a mild observation as a harsh critique.
Don’t get overly involved in adolescent eating crazes. Trying to control a teen’s food choices and eating behavior generally makes matters worse. They have to find their own way. Have a dialogue with your child about her eating habits, not a monologue.
Be on the lookout for danger signs of more serious eating disorders. Keep your eyes and ears open. Rapid weight loss, body-image distortions, or secretive behavior can indicate a more serious problem. Consult with your pediatric health care provider if you have concerns or questions.
What works with your teens?