By Caroline Best, Christin Hensley, and Ivy Devadas (Student Interns) and Alex Raymond, RD, LD
I don’t remember a ton from middle school aside from not liking math class and going to Starbucks after school on Fridays. But one of my clear memories from 13 is from the doctor’s office. The nurse weighing me made a comment about making sure to not gain to much weight during puberty. It was a little comment. But it felt so negative. And to this day I still remember how uncomfortable it made me.
I don’t know a single person who has felt 100% positive about their body image 100% of the time. Body image is a complicated, ongoing, personal experience. It is further complicated by the fact that we are constantly bombarded with messages of an unrealistic view of what “attractive” looks like.
This post focuses on messages that tend to focused on young women. However, we absolutely acknowledge that young men are exposed to plenty of harmful messages as well.
While body image is complicated for everyone, women in their pre-teens and teens are targeted especially heavily with SO many problematic, degrading, and unrealistic messages about body image.
The language you use when talking to young women at a time when they are forming their ideas about the world, about beauty, and about themselves resonates more than you think. What might seem like a little comment about how your “new diet” is making you feel great about your legs or an opinion on how good someone looks after they’ve lost/gained weight contributes to forming ideas that there is *a way* to look attractive, which there absolutely is not. It reinforces the idea that our bodies define our self worth. And that if you do not “look” a certain way or look “your best,” then you’re worth less. Women (and men) are constantly bombarded with messages like this, which makes it really difficult to accept the idea that your body does not define your worth. So, be responsible with your words. There was a Huffington Post Article on this topic written by Sarah KoppelKam that I’ve bookmarked on my computer because I love it so much.
Here’s my favorite section from the article that I think is beyond wonderful. This is so important for everyone to hear:
“Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture. Teach your daughter how to cook kale. Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter. Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of being outside.
Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide ribcages. It’s easy to hate these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs. She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.
Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.”
There is no set-in-stone way to talk about nutrition. However it is important to choose your words and actions carefully. Negative attitudes about nutrition can easily carry on to your preteen or teen. And they will mostly likely carry that negative attitude into adulthood. While there is no set-way to talk about nutrition to your preteen or teen, there are strategies you can use for addressing body image and health in a positive light.
1. Avoid commenting on weight gain/loss
Commentary on our children’s bodies is unnecessary and can often be harmful. And again, if reinforces the idea that our worth is defined by what our bodies look like. I can’t say this enough, but that is absolutely false! Compliment your children on academic, athletic, or personal accomplishments. Tell your children how much you love them, just because. Tell your children they do not have to be perfect, because nobody is. Avoid commentary on their physical appearance. Encouraging weight gain/loss because you think it would help your child feel/look better can have seriously detrimental effects, like poor mental health and the potential to lead to disordered eating or eating disorders. If you have serious concerns about your child’s health, speak to a dietitian or their doctor.
2. Encourage snacking on/eating a wide variety of foods
Focus on eliminating certain foods and/or calorie restriction can affect your child’s mindset about nutrition. Rather than enforcing the idea that certain foods always equal healthy foods encourage your children to eat a variety of satisfying snacks and meals. It’s important to set that example yourself. Remember, there isn’t one food that is going to make or break your health. In fact, putting foods on the same playing field has much better health effects (both mental and physical) than cutting out foods.
3. “Are you sure you want more of that?”
Trust your pre-teen or teenager to know what their body needs! Asking if they’re “sure” they want more food can cause anxiety. This sort of language can be damaging, especially if they’re already experiencing stress about body image. These comments can actually bring them further away from eating intuitively and trusting their bodies. Remember, everyone’s hunger/fullness cues are different.
4. All food are equal!
No food is “bad” or “good!” Every food provides different amounts of energy and nutrients that your body can use! Promote practicing eating a wide variety of foods when speaking to your teens about food choices. Again, please try to model this behavior yourself! If you are worried about your own relationship with food and adding variety. It may be a good idea to set up an appointment with a dietitian who specializes in the non-diet approach.
5. Don’t encourage your child weighing themselves in the name of “health management”
While this is seemingly harmless, having a scale accessible in your house can place unnecessary pressure of your teen. Weight is not a reliable indicator of health and using it as such can put your teen at risk for developing disordered eating habits. In fact, why don’t you try just getting rid of the scale if you have one!
Talking to Young Women about Their Health: A Personal Story from Ivy, A Nutrition Intern
From 4-14 years old, I played competitive soccer. I spent almost everyday kicking a ball around my backyard. Training, practicing, and playing games was my favorite way to spend my time.
I don’t remember many specifics about my time playing soccer, but one statement has stuck with me forever: “You should workout more — you’re out of shape.”
I’m know that my father, who was also my coach, doesn’t remember saying this. And I’m not sure what he meant by it. But that statement ran through my head every time that I exercised to the point of fatigue. My dad never intended for a fleeting sentence to influence my body image. And I don’t blame him for it doing so. It’s actually taught me to be more aware of my own speech about body image and nutrition.
Something I’ve learned as I’ve grown up is the importance of complementing people on who they are.
Not how they’re looking that day.
Tell your friend how happy she looks. Let your your lab partner know you admire how driven she is. Tell a teammate that her passion is incredible.
We all make small comments that can impact others in such huge ways. Everyday can be a new opportunity to change our own attitudes about body image and nutrition, as well as influencing those around us.
I can’t emphasize this enough… It’s so important we teach young women they are MORE than their bodies. Women (and everyone, actually) deserve respect no matter how their bodies present in the world. I want the younger generation to know that someone’s body does not define his/her worth. I personally like the website Beauty Redefined. They talk about this idea of being “more than a body.” I’d encourage you to check it out! Whether you love your body, like your body or hate your body, you are worthy of love, respect, and compassion.