In today’s society, there is a very large focus on body image and body “ideals” which are greatly influenced by the barrage of image-focused media messages that we receive daily. Often, ad messages don’t focus on health, instead they focus on losing weight, looks, and “fat-shaming”. In reality the number on a scale or one’s clothing size does not determine an individual’s health. Health is a function of genetics, lifestyle, activity level, and dietary choices. There is no single way to define what it means to be beautiful on the inside or the outside.

The media’s push towards a specific “ideal image” can become very dangerous, especially for children and teens who are more susceptible to internalizing negative messages. Eating disorders are one way that kids and teens manifest the pressure towards the “thin ideal,” although media and social pressures are not the only contributing factors to this.

Here are a few guiding principles to keep in mind when talking to your child about nutrition and health:

Weight is not always a sign of health status: Health is independent from size or weight. Each individual has a natural point, that varies over time, which is their body’s ideal weight range for optimal health. Excessive weight loss can lead to significant physical complications and can be very damaging to the heart, brain, kidneys, muscles, etc.

If you have concerns about your child’s eating behaviors or weight, speak with your child’s doctor: Parental concern can be a very strong predictor of the presence or development of an eating disorder. If you feel that your child’s doctor is not taking your concerns seriously enough, voice your concerns and ask for help, be sure that you are giving all of the facts and speaking from a factual base. You and your doctor need to partner to look out for the best interest of your child.

Model the behaviors and beliefs you want your child to develop. As a parent, your relationship with your body image will influence your child’s own body image beliefs. Be cognizant of the messages you are sending. By criticizing yourself or others based on things like body shape, weight, and clothing size it sends the signal to your child that this is acceptable and may lead to them doing the same.  Show your child that people are defined by much more than their physique. Healthy people come in different shapes and sizes.

Involve your whole family in meal planning and healthy eating: Develop a culture in your home of eating regularly and healthily with a variety of food groups, rather than focusing on the latest no-fat, no-sugar food trends. Set positive examples and get your children involved in helping plan and prepare meals.

If you are concerned that your child may have an eating disorder, here are a few things to look out for (these are not the only symptoms and may not be only indicative of an eating disorder, however they are cause for some concern and a conversation with your child and their doctor.

  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • A hyper-focus on calories and the fat content
  • Avoiding foods that they liked to eat in the past
  • Refusing to eat with the family and/or in public
  • Excessive exercise
  • Change in how they dress, including suddenly wearing baggy clothes to hide their body
  • Mood changes including more anxiety, irritability, or sadness and withdrawal

Body image is a hard subject for teens and there may be a lot of peer pressure and outside pressure they feel to look a particular way, the best thing you can do for your child or teen is to have an open line of communication with them about it and be there to help them.