Tips to help your teen shape a healthy body image

Tips to help your teen shape a healthy body image

If you open a teen magazine, turn on primetime TV or surf the latest fashion trends, chances are you’ll see impossibly thin models selling the idea of beautiful. Our society has become so familiar with these images that many of us just pass them by without realizing their true impact. When teenagers measure their appearances against these images, it can cause unhealthy behaviors.

“Distorted body image and low self-esteem are inextricably linked to eating disorders among teenagers,” says Tonya McFarland, PsyD, a psychologist with Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s Eating Disorders Program.

Depression, certain athletics, and even genetics can contribute to how teenagers perceive their body. When these influences cause teens to feel bad about their appearance, it can lead to unhealthy dieting and exercising, including disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or compulsive exercising.

So what can parents do to help their teen appreciate the body he or she has? A lot, says McFarland, who advises parents to use the following strategies to promote a healthy body image: 

  • Recognize the red flags. Common warning signs of poor body image and distorted eating include:
    • Obsessing about food, weight, and eating.
    • Avoiding meals or social activities associated with food. 
    • Binge eating in a short period of time, followed by trips to the bathroom to purge.
    • Compulsive behaviors including calorie counting, excessive exercising, or restricting certain foods.
    • Changes in appearance, such as hair loss, weight loss, tooth decay, brittle nails or dark under-eye circles.
    • Obsessing over appearances in sports activities that emphasize weight. “Cheerleading, gymnastics, wrestling, and ballet or other forms of dance are activities that put pressure on teens to maintain a certain appearance,” McFarland says. “The incidence of eating disorders is higher among athletes.”

    If your teen exhibits any of these behaviors, make an appointment with a primary care doctor to check for serious health complications.

  • Don’t be the food/exercise police. Getting your teen involved in planning inventive meals or participating in a non-competitive family sport are simple ways to focus on healthy living. If your child carries extra weight, McFarland cautions against putting him or her on a strict diet. It can trigger poor body image and disordered eating. “Don’t engage in battles over food or get over-involved in their eating or exercise habits,” McFarland cautions. “Instead, show them how to engage in a lifestyle that emphasizes health, not weight.”
  • Take a look in the mirror. You know you’re a role model for your teenagers, so be careful. Avoid obsessing over calories, weight gain or loss, or the latest diet and exercise trends. Never compare yourself or your teen with anyone else, and resist commenting on others’ appearances when it comes to weight.
  • Let teens be teens. Actions are more important than appearances. Allow them to wear what they want, listen to the music they like, and eat foods they prefer (within reason). “Instead of praising or disapproving of things that relate to appearances or certain social situations, refocus on the good grade they got on a test,” McFarland recommends. “Help them create a top-10 list of things they’re great at.”

If you suspect your teen is struggling with their body image, take measures now to get him or her treatment before it’s too late. Serious health consequences can result from ignoring the warning signs. Kaiser Permanente’s Eating Disorders Program has a team of dietitians, psychologists, and pediatricians who collaborate to provide cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medication, and medical monitoring to help teens recover from eating and exercising disorders.

Parents can find more resources on preventing and treating teen eating disorders at