“Dad am I fat?” asked my then 13-year-old daughter as she stared at herself in the mirror. I sighed to myself when I heard that oft-repeated question. If I said no, she would tell me that I was lying because I’m her father. If I said yes, then I’ve sentenced her to the worst fate of adolescence —“fat hood.”
It shouldn’t surprise parents that their teenage daughters and sons are so preoccupied with their appearance. Some of this is ordinary adolescent self-absorption. However, our cultural obsession with weight and shape is way overboard. Unfortunately, females are the main victims of this fixation, although males are quickly coming up from behind.
Check out your teenage daughter’s magazines. The models are twig thin. Watch your teen’s television shows. The actors all have flat stomachs. We have gone to extremes in defining female beauty. Only a select few can fit into the jeans of today’s female models and actors.
I’ve observed that many girls’ self-esteem begins to plummet after puberty. Strong and confident 10-year-old girls turn into anxious, insecure 13-year-olds. Physical appearance becomes the barometer for self-esteem and confidence.
Heaven forbid a teen is actually overweight! The intense suffering of even slightly overweight teens is extremely painful to observe. Worse, kids often ridicule their heavy middle schooler peers. These children can become isolated, withdrawn and depressed.
What can parents do?
Develop a balanced approach to your own weight and shape. Parental concerns about their own weight and shape can have an enormous impact on their children. In order to model a healthy, balanced approach to eating, body image and self-esteem, parents must discover this balance in themselves. This is no easy matter in our appearance-driven society.
Promote healthy eating and an active lifestyle. Serve fresh fruits and vegetables, model healthy portion control, promote an active family life (biking, hiking and after-dinner walks), limit sweets around the house (no need for gallons of ice cream in the freezer), and limit computer and television time (a huge contributor to lack of physical activity). It’s helpful not to have junk food around the house.
Don’t get overly involved in adolescent eating crazes. Trying to control a teen’s food choices and eating behavior makes matters worse. Adolescents need to find their own way. They will tend to go further in the opposite direction if parents try to exert too much control. Talk with your youngster about her eating habits, not a monologue.
Be thoughtful about what you say to teens about their weight and shape. Teens will take even a mild observation as a harsh critique. Be sensitive. Choose your words wisely.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.