Young people today are faced with social pressures that the generation before didn’t have to deal with. There’s certainly good to come from online classes, a social climate that is becoming more accepting of marginalized people, and more entrepreneurial opportunities than any prior generation has seen.
But there’s also enormous pressure for school or employment at the expense of social life, cyber-bullying, multiple social media accounts, phones at fingertips, and pressures to explore their bodies and sexuality in ways for which their brains may not yet be ready. At the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, we recognize that body image and eating habits can both be deeply intertwined with the unique pressures of modern life. If you have a teen, or you are a teen, who struggles with body image, here are four body image tips to keep in mind:
1) Model the Body Image Relationship You’d Like Them to Have
If you’re a same-gender parent of a teen, and you haven’t examined your own body image, it’s time to do so. What you say about others of the same gender, and what you say about your own body, is being absorbed by your teen. If you comment about how someone should not be wearing spandex, even if you think your teen doesn’t fit in that category, she will pick up on the message that to be thin is to be accepted. She’s learning how to feel about her body from observing how you feel about yours. If you struggle with yo-yo dieting or body bashing, it’s time to take that to your own support circle and be mindful of speech around your teen.
If you are not the same gender as your teen, be impeccable about the way you speak of other genders from your own. Your teen receives a lot of messages from peers and the media, and he is most likely picking up on the objectification and sexualization of who he is. He may perpetuate this by bullying others with body shame or learning to expect the same cruelty about his body from other women in his life. If you are cis-gender (you do identify with the gender you were born with) and your teen is gender-non-conforming, your teen may be struggling with body image in multiple ways, so find ways to surround your teen with positive transgender role models and tell them you’re proud of them.
And if you are a teen who has a friend who struggles with body image, you can speak about your body in non-objectifying ways. If you have your own body image struggles, speak about your own struggles without perpetuating a culture that biases one body shape over another. For example, instead of saying something like “I hate my body. X part is so disgusting,” you can say, “I’m having a bad body image day, but let’s focus on something positive about myself instead.”
2) Focus on the Subjective Body Rather Than the Object Body
There’s already so much pressure on all of us to focus our worth on what we look like, instead of who we are. The object body is what the body looks like and the commodity it becomes in interactions. The subjective body, however, is how the body feels and acts from the internal experience.
Parents can support their teen’s positive body image by focusing on what their teen’s body can do and how their bodies allow them to feel emotions while tuning into intuition. Their bodies are what tell them which direction to go, what they value, and what they like by giving them sensations and feelings to move toward or away from something. Their bodies are what tell them when there’s danger, or a red flag, and when someone is safe.
For these reasons, it’s important to nurture the subjective body through body-mind practices and conversations. You can role model for your teen or friend by making statements about your subjective experience, such as “I know that this new job is right for me because my chest expands and I get a rush of energy through my spine. Every time I think about the old job, my spine shrinks and my stomach sinks.” And rather than make comments about how their bodies look, ask them how they’re feeling in their bodies.
3) Talk About and Role Model Healthy Boundaries
Many people feel badly about their bodies because of boundary violations, whether someone came too close or went too far away. Be affectionate with your teen, but only if this feels good to him. If you don’t have an established understanding, ask and respect the boundary stated. And, if they’re struggling after an important loss, make sure you either keep that person alive for them or talk to them about the pain of someone important choosing not to show up for them.
Dynamic Eating Psychology teaches us it’s important that your teen understands that their body is theirs. They need to know that pleasure is a good thing, but there are ways that their bodies and psyches need to be protected. Hearing at young ages that “you need to ask before you touch her” may translate later into respect around sexuality and objectification. Showing her in your actions that you respect her body may translate later in life to internalizing that respect for herself. Allow for experimentation with identity and body expression that also leaves room for changing the mind down the road.
4) Spend Quality Time With Each Other
Your presence itself can have a nourishing impact. Spend quality time getting to know what she likes, from her perspective. You’ll develop trust for the struggles. When you show up for what’s important to her, she will feel like she matters, and that improves body image.
Eat family meals together that nourish the body. Don’t eat separate diet food. Talk about your day and ask questions about his. Slow down. Move together in mindful and playful ways. This will encourage valuing the subjective body. And when we are getting nourishment, digesting in calm and accepting environments, we feel better about our bodies.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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