The impact of body shaming on teens - and what parents can do
The impact of body shaming can be significant and lifelong; body image plays an important role in a young person’s physical and mental health, their aspirations and their relationships. Shaming can come in many forms and guises: it can be name calling at school; it can be a comment warning them not to eat another treat; it can be a parent telling them to do more exercise or they’ll gain weight. Often adults might not even be aware of the damage they can do with their words. Negative connotations related to weight are all around teens, through our culture and society, but as parents there is much that can be done to help combat the effects of body shaming on our children.
It starts with you
Consider the language you use about your body. Do you look in the mirror and complain about what you see? Teens absorb what they hear around them, and if parents, caregivers or family members criticize their own appearance, then they will consider this normal. You could inadvertently be teaching bad habits through your attitude to your body. Try to set the example of being kind to yourself.
Focus on what our bodies can do
Talk regularly about what our bodies can do, and not just around movement – include senses, creative and intellectual pursuits. By instilling holistic body appreciation, young people are more likely to develop self-worth beyond appearance. Body Image Expert Dr. Stephanie Damiano recommends(PDF) (4.1 MB) reflecting together on five things your body helped you do today: “My brain helped me finish that long essay.”
Don't comment on weight
Refrain from encouraging weight loss or criticizing your teen's appearance, even if you are concerned about their weight, as body shaming children can result in long-lasting body image issues. Instead, focus on healthy behaviors and communicate that these can be fun: this could be going on a walk with friends, taking part in a new sport or trying different foods for a more nutritious diet.
If your teen is being teased about their looks, either in person or on social media, first try to talk; let them know you're there to help. Dealing with bullying can take time: be patient and try to understand what your child is going through. Show them you’re there to support them and reassure them that they don’t need to change their appearance – you can find a way to tackle bullying together.
Resist the urge to reassure
If your child is complaining about their body – perhaps they feel they are too big or small – resist the automatic urge to reassure them that they are not. This can send the message that certain appearances are in fact 'bad' and implies changing them is good or necessary. Instead, discuss why all body shapes and types are worthy of acceptance.
Be mindful of family jokes
Teens become more sensitive to comments about appearance as they get older and family members should be mindful: consider if something is gentle teasing or risks affecting confidence. “Children who experience teasing about appearance from family members are more likely to try to control their weight in an unhealthy way,” says Professor Phillippa Diedrichs(PDF) (4.1 MB). Avoid body talk and everyone benefits.