The link between body image and depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and eating disorders has been studied as a personal psychological problem for well over fifty years. Because the prevalence of eating disorders and body image based problems have skyrocketed over the last 20 years, the discussion of body image is now being looked at not strictly as a personal psychological problem, but rather an indication of a social problem. This is great news for us parents! As the body image epidemic grows culturally, we can recognize the problem and prevent it from spreading to our own children. But first, we need to recognize it in ourselves, and we need to understand what body image is.
What is body image?
Body image is defined as a person using his or her body to construct a sense of self. The image of who she is becomes psychologically constructed by how she looks, her attractiveness, her sexuality, how her body performs (athletically), or if her body is healthy. In short, body image is used as a gold standard of worth for people who are able-bodied. Are you attractive enough, thin enough, sexy enough, athletic enough, or healthy enough? I like to refer to these as sacred body-righteous standards. They are sacred because they are believed as unquestionable truths, and righteous because the body is used to define the individual morally. If, however, an individual has the misfortune of a disease, a disfigurement, or an accident that leaves her disabled, none of the body image rules apply and the person is free to be and to love herself without condition. But if you are able-bodied, you are held to an incredibly high standard in order to feel good about your body and for it to be approved.
Once an individual internalizes and believes a body-righteous standard is important and required, he is held to the ideal and compared to it in order to define and prove his worth. When he compares himself to the able-bodied gold-standard, the difference between what he believes is ideal and his actual body creates feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent. But if his body matches the ideal he can feel proud, a sense of power, accomplishment, and safety. Either way, someone who uses body image to define his value, sense of worth, or to construct his sense of identity is at high risk for eating disorders, as well as exercise addiction. But again, for all of this to take hold, an image of what the ideal body is must be recognized, understood, and internalized as an unquestionable “sacred” requirement.
The role of media
Corporate-driven media has been a huge contributing factor to the definition of the idealized body image. They use perfected and airbrushed pictures as examples of what should be aspired to. The diet, beauty, and health industries use perfected body images as their main selling point and motivation behind what they are selling. These businesses send a powerful message that beauty, health, fitness, and thinness are the most important measures of life, worth, happiness, control, and success, and the media they use captures the perfected body-righteous standard in such a way that has stigmatized anything other than the ideal. But corporate media only has power if the consumer actually believes the message behind the body image symbol, and that’s where parents have a key role in either contributing to or preventing the problem.
Positive and negative parenting examples
Parents and family can play an important contributing factor when they, too, have internalized, believed, and encouraged these sacred body-righteous standards. Most people are aware that making your teen’s weight and diet a focus is an obvious contributor to negative body image and eating disorders. But, they don’t necessarily understand that how parents feel about themselves and how they treat their own bodies can be just as influential.
Parents who openly discuss their “battle with weight,” who openly judge and criticize parts of their body, who publicly talk about their diets, who describe food as “bad/good” or “clean/dirty,” who feel the need to excuse eating, who have to justify what they eat, or who negotiate for food–all of these positively teach moral importance and values of body-righteousness.
Conversely, powerful contributors to poor body image are the parents and people who believe they actually have the power and righteousness of the ideal body that others aspire to have. Many of these people are in the diet, nutrition, health, and fitness industry and they use themselves as the example. They tend to use their ideal body as a measure of their success and have a higher, more righteous standard for themselves and their children.
Children of these “ideal body” parents are often held to a stricter body-righteous standard, have food restricted needlessly, are forced to exercise for fitness, and they often hear their parents criticize, judge, and even shame other people who are fat, unhealthy, or who don’t believe or prioritize the same body-righteousness. The internal family perfectionism without grace inevitably results in their children’s fear of shame and disapproval if their body doesn’t match the family standard. Essentially, these children are held captive by the strict requirement of their parent’s egotistic standard of righteousness.
These parents are more likely to over-criticize their children’s bodies and make them diet out of their own projected fear of being judged for having an overweight child. These children tend to resent their parents, feel bad about who they are, hide food, over-criticize themselves and their body, and, unfortunately, are at a high risk for eating disorders. But this type of body image captivity and fear mongering doesn’t have to come from a parent. It can come from a spouse, friend, significant other, or society.
While parents and families can certainly contribute to the body image problem, they are just as powerful in preventing it as well. When you find a sense of worth that forgives and eliminates body image, you will have more power to teach your children how to do it for themselves.
Tips to encourage a positive body image
What can we do as parents to raise children to have positive relationships with their bodies? Here are a few suggestions that might help.
1. Find a sense of human-worth that is not defined by body image, physical attractiveness, or any cultural ideology.
2. Love and appreciate your body without condition.
3. If the body you are in is alive, it is perfect.
4. Expose the extreme perfectionism used in the media to manipulate our concepts of body image.
5. Expose the body-righteousness and health-righteousness used in the diet industry and body image culture.
6. Recognize that as an able-bodied human, you don’t actually have a problem.
7. Give yourself the freedom to live life as if the ideal body isn’t possible, as if it doesn’t exist and it never will.
8. Exercise for pleasure, not for an image or an illusion of health.
9. Eat a variety of food and eat pleasurably.
10. Do not diet, and do not encourage your children to diet.
11. Do not weigh yourself or measure yourself in front of your children.
12. Do not body-shame others or body-praise others.
13. Do not discuss your judgment of yourself or others in front of your children.
14. Do not make your children’s looks important or worthy of praise/criticism.
15. Eat when you are hungry and avoid excessive fullness, and encourage your family to do the same.
16. Do not judge food morally.
17. Do not food-shame.
18. Give your children the breathing room to express and dress themselves.
19. Take the seriousness out of your own dress code.
20. Get professional help if you believe you or your child struggles with disordered eating or an eating disorder.
By following these tips, you can improve your own healthy body image and serve as a powerful role model to your teen.
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LOS GATOS TEEN THERAPY CAN HELP!
Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.