Helping your teen develop a healthy body image

Dr Helena Torpinski|General dermatology
22 August 2019


Written by Dr Helena Torpinksi.
Dr Helena is a GP and skin laser specialist. She loves helping our patients to feel great in the skin they’re in.

It’s a concern for many mums – how do we instil a healthy body image in our teens, particularly our daughters.

With the immense amount of advertising and social media pressure that teenagers face, and the strong messaging about what’s OK and what’s not, when it comes to women’s bodies, is it even possible for parents to have an impact? We think it is.

Balancing health and non-judgement

It’s hard to figure out the balance between teaching our kids that obesity isn’t good, but also that obese people are still good people.

Finding the balance of encouraging health and non-judgement can seem impossible. But the importance of getting this right can’t be overstated. We’re building future citizens who may hate their own bodies as they face the weight challenges of different stages of life (like pregnancy, illness, medications and menopause) and who may also be hateful toward others who suffer these things.

To achieve a balance between health and non-judgement, we believe it’s important to be honest with yourself and your teen about how hard things are, that it is a difficult balance and that, most importantly, it’s not all about how you look!

Here are a few key points to help you navigate this tricky terrain.

Are you modelling a health body image?

When it comes to teens, there’s one clear truth you’ve probably found out the hard way – if you’re not honest, they’ll see it and call you out.

So ask yourself how well you’re modelling a healthy body image to your kids.

Examine your belief system about weight – your own weight and other people’s.

Is it consistent or do you judge your own body more harshly?

Do you hate parts of your body because they’re not perfect?

Are you avoiding dealing with the drivers of your own weight issues, such as loneliness, fear, boredom etc?

Being able to look at how you feel and what you believe, and addressing what you know isn’t great, is a strong first step in building a healthy attitude in your kids.

And watch what you’re saying.

Do you ask “Does my butt look big in this?” or do you make comments like “Look at that beached whale” when you see a larger person on the beach or at the pool?

When you’re watching TV or reading magazines, do you comment on the bodies of celebrities?

Whether you’re commenting about yourself or others, children and teens absorb attitudes and repeat words. What you condone in yourself, they will condone in themselves.

While we want our kids to understand the importance of a healthy body weight, this kind of judgemental attitude will ultimately hurt them and possibly others and it will work against creating the health body image we want for our teens.

So watch what you’re modelling and work on your own problematic thinking and actions first.


Get the focus off weight and on to other benefits

Weight is only one of a number of measures of health. And health is what we really want for our children.

Helping children and teens understand that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes, and what’s healthy and possible for one may be different from another.

Some options for changing the focus point away from weight are:

Fitness. How far can you jog without getting puffed, or without muscles hurting the next day? Can you take the stairs instead of the lift? Why not walk the half hour to the shops instead of driving, because it’s great to get your heart rate up and blood circulating.

Nutrition. Are you eating the recommended 5 veg and 2 fruit servings everyday, for optimal health? Can you fit more veg in, as a challenge? How much sugar are you consuming and how much junk food? (We wrote a blog about eating well for skin health here – it’s a great place to start)

Strength building. As you do physical activity to build muscle, you’ll slowly see improvements in your body’s strength. This focus allows kids to gain a sense that their body is capable physical of change and achievement, without the sole focus being around how they look.

Skills building. Similar to the last point, many sports give the opportunity to focus on gaining skill, and weight loss or stability is a convenient side effect.

Enjoying life more. Often times, when kids (and adults) struggle with weight, they’re also struggling to do much with their spare time other than sit on the couch and eat foods that boost “feel good” hormones for a short time. Helping kids learn that getting outside, enjoying sunshine and movement, spending time together away from screens and taking in natural beauty such as the beach, sunsets, parks etc, can improve mood and enjoyment of life significantly. Again, a healthier body and weight loss can simply be a great side effect.

Discuss body image issues with your teen – create an agreed family culture

Even if your teen seems to have a fairly healthy body image, chances are they’re very aware of the difficulties others face when it comes to how they look. Being willing to talk about it can really help kids who are emotionally affected by body image issues, as well as helping you realise how better to support your child’s experience of their body and their health.

Talk about your struggles with liking your body.

Talk about how easy it is to be judgemental of yourself and of others because of how they look.

Talk about how many factors can contribute to weight (not just over-eating).

Talk about how hard it is not to eat the “bad” foods.

Talk about how loving the parts of your body you wish looked different is tough.

And most importantly, talk about how vital it is that we encourage and accept each other, not judge each other, even when we fail, fall off the wagon or struggle with weight. Discuss the kinds of help we need when we do feel negative about ourselves.

You may decide to create an agreed family culture – with rules or guides like “How our family speaks about our own bodies and other people’s bodies”. This can help improve your self worth and body acceptance, as well as building healthier self acceptance in your kids and contributing to a better world.

In these ways, you can change the patterns of thinking in your teen and yourself, for better and more sustainable, long-term change toward health and happiness.

If you know your family could do with some help implementing healthier choices and behaviours, talk to your GP about what resources are available.