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Mom, Am I Fat?

Helping Your Teen Have a Positive Body Image

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Updated April 23, 2009

Mom, Am I Fat? What You Need to Know About Teen Body Image

Fashion magazines don't care about teen body image, or they would provide more images of women and men with healthy bodies. Instead, the magazines make it no secret that our society is obsessed with thinness. Models and movie stars are presented as examples of what is supposed to be considered attractive. Parents, other adults and peers can sometimes reinforce the message that only a thin body is an attractive body. It is important for parents to be able to promote a healthy body image in their teen as part of helping their child have an overall positive self and body image.

Body-Image: Where Does It Come From?

It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly where a teenager gets his or her body image from, but there are a few main influences: media, parents, other adults, peers and health professionals.

  • Media. Television and movies often promote underweight women as being the most attractive. The average model today is 25% thinner than the average American woman. It is impossible to see very thin women on TV, in movies, in magazines, on billboards, or on the internet and not begin to feel that being thin equals being attractive.

  • Parents. How we feel about our own bodies influences how our children feel about theirs. If we are constantly unsatisfied with our own appearance, our teens begin to think it is okay or normal to feel dissatisfied with theirs. Additionally, parents that negatively comment on their teens’ weight or body type can destroy any positive body image a teen might have.

  • Other Adults. From the moment a baby is born, people talk about a child’s appearance. From “How handsome he is!” to “Look at those chubby legs!” to less flattering comments – it seems like everyone has an opinion about a baby’s body and attractiveness. Although the infant doesn’t internalize these messages at this point, it is easy to forget how other people’s comments will have an impact in the future.

  • Peers. If a teen’s friends are telling your child that she is fat, or if she is teased about her weight by other peers, she is more likely to have a negative body image. As children get older, their peers have a great deal of influence on how they behave, so peer comments can be unusually powerful.

  • Health Professionals. Because weight can be a sensitive subject for many teens, it is important for health care providers to handle the subject with care. One thoughtless or misinterpreted comment from a provider can negatively impact how a teen feels about her weight and body type.

The Risks of a Negative Body-Image

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists these statistics about unhealthy body image and eating disorders:

  • Almost 54 percent of American girls and women aged 12 to 23 years old are unhappy with their bodies

  • One-third of high school students thought they were overweight when they were not

  • Roughly 75 percent of girls as young as 9 years old have dieted from 2 to 5 times in a given year

  • At any given time, 5 to 10 million women and girls have eating disorders that harm their health, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia

Many women have a negative body image, and this negative image can lead to an eating disorder. The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia, and these diseases can have significant health consequences:

  • Anorexia (or anorexia nervosa) is a serious and sometimes deadly disease. People with anorexia see themselves as overweight even when they are not. They limit the amount of food they eat, restrict the kinds of food they will eat and can compulsively exercise to try to keep their weight down. It is estimated that up to 10% of people with anorexia will die from complications of the disease.

  • Bulimia is an eating disorder of binging and purging. People with bulimia will eat, often to excess, and will find ways of ridding their bodies of the food. Purging can mean vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise or otherwise "getting rid of" what was eaten through other means. Bulimia can lead to various physical problems such as teeth erosion, swallowing issues, rupture of the esophagus, stomach damage, rectal damage and dehydration.
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