Everywhere we look, we are flooded with images of what “beautiful” should look like. We open up the latest Teen, YM and Cosmo magazines and are greeted with images of models who are stick thin and airbrushed while reading about how we too can “lose 10 pounds in 5 days.” We drive down the highway and see billboards promoting weight loss, and we turn on the TV and see actresses who are unbelievably thin. It’s not hard to understand why American girls and women have such a hard time loving their own bodies. You have to look hard to find media that promotes self-love and a realistic body image. This is sad, as a healthy body image is critical to happiness and well-being.
I have seen children as young as 10 years old who already have started dieting. Some can’t identify even one part of their body they like! I have worked with preteen girls who are aspiring to be as pretty and thin as some of their famous idols, without understanding that what the public sees isn’t real. So as a medical professional, I wonder, what can we do to help children and teens learn to love their own bodies? How can we help prevent them from developing eating disorders? This often is on my mind as I care for patients. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned we can start within.
Positively influence your child
By working on the following things, you can really help prevent a life filled with self-hatred and a potential eating disorder.
- Encourage your children and help them focus on areas other than their looks. For example, remind your children how important it is to be a good friend to others versus focusing on external appearances. Parents, try to show that effort and enjoyment is more important than getting straight As.
- Speak positively about your own and others’ bodies. Leading by example can be one of the best tools a parent can use. Children and teens will mimic what they see their parents doing. I cannot tell you how frequently I see a young teen with an eating disorder and his or her parent is also struggling with body image or eating.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Let your child or teen know he or she can talk to you about anything. Don’t be afraid to bring up body self-image with your child. Beauty comes from within. It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. Helping our children to love and accept themselves is one of the best tools I know to help children and teens develop a healthy body image.
This isn’t easy because we all have our own insecurities. But every little bit you can do to positively influence your child will make a difference. Hopefully, someday we can change today’s definition of “beautiful.”
Katie is an advanced practice nurse in the Adolescent Health Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. The clinic provides eating disorder assessment, diagnosis and outpatient treatment. The clinic’s location at Children’s provides immediate access to state-of-the-art medical care.