A 16-year-old sat across from me in my counseling office, and with tears spilling down her cheeks, she explained, "I'm the big one in my group of friends. All my friends are tiny and pretty — and I'm not." My heart sank as I stared back at a perfectly healthy teenage girl who had believed our culture’s lies about beauty.
For teens struggling with body image, comparison is a major contributor to their unhealthy, even distorted, view of their body. In addition to comparing themselves to friends, they often watch celebrities in the media and conclude: If I looked like them, I, too, would be loved by the world. And teens want to be loved, so they desperately try to conform to a popular image, whether by body size, hair color, clothing styles or body art.
The problem is that when teens try to conform, God's unique design for them is lost. God is our Creator, making each of us unique and wonderful in His image (Genesis 1:27). For Christian parents, helping teens focus on the beauty of God's design rather than on skewed media messages can be a challenge.
The influence of culture
Pop culture places a high value on looks and thinness. It depicts unrealistic body shapes and sizes and, no doubt, contributes to the prevalence of body-image distortions among teens. Media send the message that a particular weight or body size will lead to happiness and fulfillment in life, and teens receive these messages on a daily basis. They're influenced while waiting at the grocery store where magazine covers advertise "the perfect body," while they're watching television with its barrage of weight-loss campaigns and while seeing young celebrities rise to fame because they have the "right" look.
The influence of social networking
With the rising popularity of social media sites such as Facebook, teen peers can now reinforce their distorted perceptions by posting pictures of unhealthy beauty trends and by identifying those who exemplify these trends as the "popular" groups.
Researchers at the University of Haifa found a direct connection between the extent of teenage girls' Facebook use with those who suffer from eating disorders, a negative body image and the pursuit of a weight-loss diet. Exposure to fashion and music on the Internet showed the same trend, but not as strong as the connection to Facebook use.
Interestingly, when parents were aware of their daughters' social media interactions and dialogued with them about issues and time invested online, researchers found that the girls had a greater feeling of empowerment and a better body image. Facebook may be the newest form of influence in a teen's life, but parental awareness and involvement are still the most important influence.
The influence of parents
Keep in mind that boys are not immune to body-image issues. Parents can initiate discussions with their teen, boy or girl, by asking the following questions:
What body image do the media portray as the "best"?
How do you see yourself in light of media messages about body types?
What do you think it means to have a healthy body image?
Parents can then help their teen identify unhealthy body perceptions, and discuss ways to reframe the negative messages into positive ones. Ask your teen to identify attributes about himself that describe his whole person, not just his outward appearance, body shape or size. Attributes to discuss could include relational, mental, spiritual, emotional and physical characteristics that he likes about himself.
As a parent, you can also:
- Affirm all body shapes and sizes.
- Place importance on health, not weight.
- Avoid making critical comments about your own body.
- Study good nutrition, and model healthy attitudes about food.
- Celebrate your teen's uniqueness as God's creation.
- Plan social activities that do not include bathing suits that might reinforce body insecurities.
- Maintain an ongoing conversation about media messages that portray unhealthy body-image issues.
- Check with your teen about issues going on at school, and listen for body-image references.
- Monitor your teen's Facebook account and other social media usage and content.
- Provide counseling for your teen if body-image issues are intense enough to trigger an eating disorder or self-destructive behavior.
- Give your teen a measure of control in her life. Eating disorders often surface as a need for control.
The teen years are clearly an impressionable time of life. Although the media have a powerful influence on teens, parents have the ability to help shape a positive and healthy body image in their teen by initiating conversation about media messages, affirming their teen's uniqueness and reinforcing God's truth in her life.
—Shelby Hall is a counselor working with teens and young adults dealing with body-image and identity issues, eating disorders and self-harming behaviors.
Copyright © 2012 by Shelby Hall.
Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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