As I have pondered a request for a piece on tweens and body image for several weeks now, I realize that I need to present the brutal truth: Most adolescent girls’ body image ‘sucks.’ According to the hundreds of tweens I have worked with over 20 years and the vantage point of being the mother of 3 girls, (two teens, one tween), and the input of their friends: there is no escaping this brutal reality. So rather than focusing this article on how to help your tween maintain any kind of positive body image, I will be giving you thoughts on how to survive this time that gets everyone through it with the least amount of angst and the most amount of humor and open communication
A few things to consider in understanding your tween’s world:
Our kids are presented with images of the body that are far different than the average size for any girl. The celebrities and models in these images have body weights that are roughly 25 – 30% thinner than the average girl. On top of that, the images are photo shopped.
These images, (even if your child doesn’t watch t.v. or buy magazines,) are insidious. They are in advertising, they are part of popular culture. All kids want to be popular and part of things. This is what they think they are supposed to look like and what they aspire to look like. Tweens I have interviewed over the years state openly: “Everything is about what others think about you and everyone thinks they’re fat and ugly. Not everyone admits it, they may even act like they don’t feel that, but they do.”
So what is a parent to do who is hoping to help her tween emerge into the teenage years and adulthood with any semblance of self esteem? Here are some tips:
1) Don’t EXPECT them to maintain a ‘positive body image’. If it happens, terrific. If not though, don’t worry that they are abnormal. In fact, they are completely normal.
2) They will try to ‘off load’ the ‘bad feelings’ about themselves onto you. This is done by telling you things like: “I hate my thighs”, or: “I always look terrible”. They need to ‘off load’ the intensity of their feelings and unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you think about it, you are their target. That way, they get to relieve the pressure. Oh, the joys of motherhood!
3) Their negative and critical comments may trigger in you feelings of responsibility for needing to help them have ‘good self esteem’. This is not your problem. Your job is to help them ‘tolerate’ the feelings without acting in a self destructive manner. You do this by surviving their ‘dumping’ their feelings onto you at times, and otherwise, ‘get out of the way!
4) Their self criticism may trigger your own self criticism. About yourself as a parent, or about your own body. Be aware of anything that you notice and separate your own feelings out as much as you can.
5) If they say nothing, don’t think it is necessarily a reflection of a positive body image. They might be hiding their feelings for some reason.
6) Watch out for drops in weight and ongoing weight loss. Seek professional help if this continues and/or they are starting a binge/purge cycle.
7) Try not to get sucked into their drama. They will do everything as I said, to ‘offload’ the feelings, often in the form of a fight. This actually might help distract everyone and will inevitably happen at times, but try to decrease the amount of times you get sucked in.
Take many deep breaths. Remind yourself that it is not your job to help them ‘feel better’. It is your job to give them space to work this out and feel it themselves. Become a little hard of hearing.
While this piece may not satisfy your urge to find anything constructive to change your tween’s attitude about their body, perhaps it will help you survive this time with a sense of what is realistic and doable. At least then you will be working with their reality and validating their feelings, rather than giving them the sense that you can’t handle their feelings. Most importantly, in speaking with many other moms who hear complaints from their tweens and struggle to figure out the right thing to do, this is the good news: Your kids are comfortable enough with you to air these complaints. A friend of mine and I were talking about it and realized that we never would have dreamed of letting our moms hear of our body complaints when we were growing up. I realized that for myself, I was more ashamed of my own vanity and concern of my appearance, than I was even of my body. Seeing it in that light, I have come to appreciate my daughters’ comfort with airing their concerns in front of me.
However, despite all of your efforts at understanding and patience, it can get wearing to hear your kids’ complaints about their appearance. So at times, you can always say as I do when I have had enough: “Please keep that as your inside voice and stop insulting my daughter.”