Do you want to improve teen body image? It’s possible, and every parent can make an impact on their teen’s body image. First, you need to understand that having bad body image is completely understandable given our society. But parents can help!
Here are six things you can do to improve teen body image:
- Understand diet culture. This will help you see that dieting and intentional weight loss are products with a 95% failure rate.
- Adopt a Health at Every Size philosophy. This states that we should pursue health behaviors without weight loss as a goal.
- Stop dieting and controlling your weight. Parents who diet are more likely to have kids who are dissatisfied with their bodies.
- Stop speaking badly about your body. Kids pick up on how parents feel about their bodies, and will develop negative body image as a result.
- Talk about media literacy. Observe and discuss the impact of traditional and social media on our society.
- Monitor social media. Don’t put your head in the sand when it comes to social media. Maintain some oversight into and maintain time limits on social media activity.
There is no way to be “perfect” when attempting to improve teen body image. This is as much an art as a science. But parents can definitely help just by showing up and learning a little bit.
Body hate and an obsession with appearance are not “normal” teenage behaviors
First, we need to address the fact that most people think it is “normal” for teens to feel bad about their bodies. This is especially true for our teenage girls.
We have normalized body hatred and an obsession with appearance in teens. But we must never mistake body hate as “normal,” because such normalization is how eating disorders hide in plain sight.
Normalization is the process through which ideas and actions are made to appear culturally “normal.” The fact that something has been normalized is an entirely different thing than being normal as in “healthy.”
We live in a culture that has normalized body hatred, and poor body image. This includes feelings of despair and anguish over the appearance of one’s body. When we hate our bodies, we believe they are flawed. Believing that the body is flawed, especially when one is physically healthy and able-bodied, makes us vulnerable to body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.
What is actually “normal” from a health standpoint is body acceptance. True health occurs not based on a number on the scale. Health is only possible when we believe our body is fundamentally good. We take better care of our bodies when we accept them.
Advertising body hate
Normalization in our culture is driven and controlled by advertisers who are trying to sell products. Rule No. 1 when marketing a product is that we must first create a market. The way we create a market is to create a problem that must be solved.
Advertisers know that marketing a diet that will cause extreme hunger and discomfort is not effective. But marketing a diet that says it will make you more attractive, and then saying that being more attractive is the key to happiness and success, is very effective.
Advertising a skin cream that looks and feels like every other cream on the market is not effective. But advertising a skin cream that says it will make you more attractive, and then saying that being more attractive is the key to happiness and success, is very effective.
This is the formula for all beauty and diet advertisements.
Marketing messages impact body image
Our children are exposed to powerful marketing messages from childhood. These messages serve to build the market for beauty and diet products. They also pave the way for body hate.
These messages serve to convince our children that their bodies are flawed, and that a person cannot be happy and successful unless they are perfect. This perfection is promised as a result of buying beauty and diet products.
Marketing is sneaky
Luckily for marketers, none of us thinks that we are easily manipulated. This is especially true of teenagers. We believe that we are pursuing beauty and weight loss for our own reasons.
But it’s not true. We are incredibly susceptible to beauty and diet marketing. Our assertion that we can’t be manipulated by marketing means, ironically, that we are more easily manipulated. We are exposed to these messages and they most definitely influence us. But we assertively deny that they have any influence over our behavior.
Social media is bad for body image
Social media is fun. Our teens spend a lot of time on social media. Most parents don’t really know what their kids are doing on social media. We didn’t grow up with social media. A lot of us don’t use social media the way our kids do. Unlike TV, which is easily observed by parents, social media can be hard to monitor and control. This creates a perfect storm for our kids.
Several studies have found that social media has a severe and negative impact on body image. One study found that the more time girls spent on social media, the more likely they were to suffer from body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders. 
Social media feels “real”
One problem with social media is that it feels “real” in a way that traditional media does not. Most of us can dismiss Seventeen magazine models as “fake.” But when we see “real” Instagram influencers our brains believe that we can and should look like them. Since it’s part of our society, social media promotes diet culture and a thin beauty ideal. But it doesn’t feel as toxic as traditional media.
Social media promotes disordered eating
The other problem is that many people use social media to encourage and reinforce disordered eating and eating disorders. Major influencers promote “Skinny” laxative teas, restrictive eating, and over-exercising. Residential eating disorder treatment centers have reported that at least 50% of their patients are using social media to support their eating disorders.
Body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders
Body hatred and an obsession with appearance are both part of the eating disorder behavior spectrum. Those of us who have eating disorders believe that we are flawed and must correct our flaws by restricting food. Once we start restricting food and send our body into starvation mode, we may develop symptoms of restriction including binge eating and purging.
Eating disorders are not always as easy to spot as we think they are. Here are 3 signs of an eating disorder that you may not know.
Parents can improve teen body image
Parents can improve teen body image. We can open our eyes to the powerful forces of advertising and social media, and learn to talk to our kids about body image.
Parents can help our children open their eyes to the idea that their bodies are perfectly fine as-is. We can help them understand that they do not need to shrink, control, alter, or otherwise mess with a body that is already perfect.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.