The immense pressure teen girls face to look a certain way can lead to challenges such as eating disorders, depression, or lower self-esteem. Luckily, promoting positive embodiment sets the foundation for teens to have a more positive relationship with their body.
Like most toddlers, my two-year-old daughter loves everything about her body—from its fascinating reflection in the mirror to all the amazing things it can do for her. She delights in her favourite foods, dances like nobody’s watching, and doesn’t care if her hair is messy (much to my own chagrin).
Sadly, I know this joyful embodiment will be threatened as my daughter enters her teens. The pressure to fit an unrealistic beauty ideal weighs heavily on young women, as they’re bombarded with messages from social media, peers, and even their parents that they’re not thin, beautiful, or fair-skinned enough.
According to Dr. Jessica Alleva, an assistant professor of psychology and body image researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, “The way girls feel about their appearance has an enormous impact on how they feel about themselves as a person.”
When this feeling is negative, it can lead to challenges such as disordered eating, depression, lower self-esteem, and even withdrawal from important activities including seeing friends, participating in class discussions, or trying out for a team.
Fostering positive embodiment
A recent survey of more than 5,000 girls aged 10 to 17 from across the world revealed that seven out of 10 believe too much emphasis is placed on beauty as a source of happiness. In other words, although helping girls love their reflection in the mirror is a worthy goal, it’s also time to transcend this hyper-focus on appearance.
Promoting a concept known as “embodiment” (or how we feel “at home” in our bodies, regardless of what we look like) is a good place to start. Dr. Erin TeWinkel, a naturopathic doctor from Toronto who specializes in teen health, says that when we promote positive embodiment from a young age, it sets teens up for success.
“For the rest of their life, they’ll know what it’s like to have a healthy, functioning body and how to listen to their body’s needs,” says TeWinkel. “They’ll have this empowerment that ‘my body can do amazing things, and these are ways I can nourish it and fuel it and be successful in it.’”
Toward positive embodiment
These strategies can help girls along this path (and are great for women, too).
Focus on function
Homing in on what our bodies can do—such as going for a walk, eating and digesting food, or giving someone a hug—is one of the best ways to build body positivity, says Alleva.
Tip: Try journalling every day about something positive your body did—a recent study found that those who did so felt positively connected to and grateful for their body.
When you criticize your weight or pick at perceived flaws in your appearance, it “not only makes you unhappy with your body, it also negatively impacts the people around you,” says Alleva.
Tip: Choose a group of peers who accept and appreciate you for who you are—not what you look like—and do things together that are not focused on appearance.
Do what you love
Doing things you enjoy—from listening to your favourite music to being in nature or practising yoga (which, a recent study shows, is linked to decreased self-objectification, or the tendency to evaluate your body based on how it looks)—connects you to your body in a positive way.
Tip: Part of a healthy routine includes physical movement, which experts agree is important for teens’ health. However, instead of exercising to lose weight, Alleva emphasizes the importance of finding an activity that brings you happiness.
Clean up your (social) feed
Although teens are unlikely to stop using social media any time soon, it’s important for them to recognize the unrealistic images perpetuated by social and mass media. Alleva says that, when young women intentionally follow body-positive media, it helps them develop a broader conceptualization of beauty and feel better about themselves.
Tip: TeWinkel recommends paying attention to how you feel when scrolling through your feed. If you’re upset or feel bad about your own body after looking at a certain account, it might be time to limit or unfollow their content.
Communicating with your teen
Few people arrive at parenthood with a perfect relationship with their body, and many unintentionally pass on their negative beliefs to their kids. The good news? While you work on your own journey toward self-love, there’s a lot you can do to ensure the messaging happening at home is body positive.
Model, model, model
Girls not only notice when mom goes on a fad diet or scrutinizes her thighs in the mirror but may also begin to mimic these behaviours themselves.
Tip: Eat together as a family as much as possible, which allows parents to model healthy eating attitudes and behaviours and has been linked to positive body image in young people.
Being a nonjudgmental ear is one of the most powerful things you can do for a teen who comes to you with body image concerns.
Tip: Although it can be tempting to jump right into problem-solving mode, body image researcher Dr. Jessica Alleva says it’s important to first “let your teen know that you’re there for them and you support them and love them regardless of how they look.” Importantly, she adds that solutions should involve helping girls love and accept themselves for who they are and to value their unique traits and achievements.
Naturopathic doctor Erin TeWinkel advises parents not to shy away from conversations about food and body image with their teens, adding, “You’re not going to hit it out of the park with one conversation; it’s the conversations that are happening over and over again that will make an impact.”
Tip: When discussing healthy eating, avoid labelling food as “good,” “bad,” or “forbidden,” or discussing weight or body shape (teens of parents who do so are more likely to diet or binge eat). Instead, focus on the importance of eating whole foods, using nutrition to make our bodies strong, and listening to our bodies’ cues for hunger and fullness.
Parents also play an important role in helping teens become critical consumers of media, asking important questions such as “Where do you think you get the message that you’re not good enough?” and “Why do you think everything on Instagram looks so perfect?”
The building blocks of teen nutrition
Naturopathic doctor Erin TeWinkel says that because adolescence is a time of “intense brain and hormonal development” teens need adequate amounts of the following nutrients.
Protein: TeWinkel says protein is the “building block for all the neurotransmitters in the brain.” Good sources include legumes, eggs, dairy products, tofu, and poultry.
Healthy fats, which are crucial for brain development, include foods such as avocado, salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed. TeWinkel sometimes recommends supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, especially when fish is not a consistent part of a teen’s diet.
Iron is critical for teens’ learning, growth, and energy, and is especially important to monitor among menstruating teens or those who don’t eat meat. Heme iron comes from meat sources, while nonheme sources include dark leafy greens, lentils, and chickpeas; just be sure to consume these with vitamin C to aid absorption.
Complex carbohydrates include oats, quinoa, and whole grains. TeWinkel notes that carbs often get a bad rap but provide necessary calories for growing bodies.
Conditions including very painful or heavy periods, severe acne, sudden weight gain or loss, or unexplainable fatigue may warrant a visit to a health care professional to investigate potential nutritional deficiencies or other undetected issues.
If you notice any of these potential signs or predictors of an eating disorder, have a conversation with your teen to let them know you’re concerned. Together, check in with a primary care provider or mental health professional for extra support.
- body checking (including compulsively stepping on the scale) or body avoidance (evading situations such as clothes shopping or looking in the mirror)
- dieting, skipping meals, or becoming secretive or irritable around food or mealtime
- sudden weight loss or gain, or preoccupation with food, weight, or calories
- signs of depression, including a consistently sad mood, irritability, less energy than normal, and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- signs of cyberbullying or weight teasing, including becoming upset after being online; withdrawing from family, friends, or activities; or suddenly refusing to go to school
The stress-diabetes connection
Chronic stress, triggered by ongoing concerns about bodyweight and image, can cause other health concerns like fluctuating glucose levels which can add to the risk of developing diabetes later in life.