Teen Body Image: What’s Normal and What’s Not

As parents, we always think our children are beautiful.  We can see them for the whole person they are and for the potential they have to do great things in the future.  Because of this, we may struggle to understand how our teenage daughter, who wears a size 4, can look in the mirror and say that she is fat or that she needs to lose weight.  We may feel frustrated that no matter what we say, we cannot seem to influence her opinion of herself.  We may worry that her concern with her appearance is unhealthy or that she is at risk for an eating disorder.  While we have reason to be worried, it isn’t because this attitude is abnormal.

In truth, the size 4 teen who is worried about being overweight is fairly typical.  In our society, one of the ways we define attractiveness is size and there is no question that there are social advantages to being considered attractive.  Attractive people tend to be more popular, get better grades, and are more likely to be hired for a job.  The pressure to be attractive, especially during the teen years, can be overwhelming.  This is likely why research indicates that only two out of every ten girls are happy with the way they look when they look in the mirror.  However, even though this attitude might be normal, it doesn’t mean it is healthy. 

Unfortunately, the definition of attractive has become so narrow in our culture that it has become virtually unattainable for most of us, especially when it comes to weight and body type.  The images held up as examples of the ideal body represent only 5% of the female population.  This means that the other 95% of women are striving to become something that is almost impossible to achieve.   For teens, this is often where the trouble starts.

Research has shown that when people have a negative body image, it increases their risk factors for unhealthy behaviors like extreme calorie restriction, compulsive exercise, vomiting, and laxative abuse.  Additionally, the more people think about their appearance, the more dissatisfied they become.  Negative body image can become a vicious cycle that leads to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and other dysfunctional behavior.  This is why the size 4 teenager’s attitude may be normal, but it isn’t healthy.

There are a number of factors that influence how we see ourselves.  The images of the ideal presented by the media mentioned above are one factor.  Another important factor is the messages we get from the other people in our lives like parents and peers specific to ourselves.  In some ways, these messages carry more weight than those from the media because of their specificity.  It is one thing to feel inadequate in comparison to a movie star or model; it is another to feel inadequate because someone who knows you tells you that you are.  For this reason, the most important thing parents can do to boost their teens body image is to monitor the messages they are sending.  If you have concerns about your teen’s body image or are concerned that their body image is contributing to other problems, talk to a mental health professional to determine the best course of action.



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