Teens and Healthy Body Image: It’s Not Just About the Pounds

After recently sharing my struggle with an eating disorder that started when I was young (check it out here on YouTube), the outpouring of not only support, but stories similar to mine, brought me back to Season 4 of Extreme Weight Loss where we had our first ever high school-aged contestant, Julianna!

I wrote a blog about this experience because it was eye-opening for me as well as a big refresher course on what teens are dealing with on a daily basis and how it affects their weight and self-worth. This is an update on the original blog post. 

Teens today, both boys and girls, are constantly bombarded with images and words telling them:

  • How they should look (runway-ready thin)
  • What they should eat (it runs the gamut from calorie-laden to severely calorie restricted)
  • What they should wear, listen to, watch, do, say

The truth is that pretty much anything and everything to do with their lives is constantly put on them through media, peer pressure at school, and probably also in their own homes. I know that was true when I was growing up, and while many things have changed since I was a teen, the bombardment of these messages has stayed the same…or probably gotten even worse with the help of social media. To say it’s overwhelming is an understatement, for sure. And unfortunately, tweens/pre-teens need to be included in this conversation too, because the pressure to look and be a certain way begins earlier than ever before.

Outfit + Product Details:

Foxy Kind Orange Set (similar here in beige), Foxy Kind White Set (similar here in tie-dye), Eden Belle by Athia Teen Skincare Products

Let’s be honest: Where body image is concerned, the messages being sent to our kids are, more often than not, unrealistic and unattainable, and they are hearing these messages loud and clear.

Look at some of these shocking stats:

  • Approximately 80% of all 10-year-old girls have dieted at least once in their lives.
  • 53% of 13-year-old girls have issues with how their bodies look.
  • The above percentage rises to 78% when girls turn 17.
  • 40-60% of children age 6 to 12 are worried about how much they weigh, and 70% would like to slim down.

Very sobering to say the least, and my heart breaks every time I receive a post from a teen who is struggling with weight and body image. Why? Well, I’ve been there, you guys! It’s obvious to me that we have a huge problem on our hands because habits formed by our kids now can negatively or positively affect the rest of their lives, and some can even lead to eating disorders and a life-long unhealthy relationship with food.

Top Ways to Teach Teens It’s NOT Just About the LBS

So how can teens and those who have teens within their sphere of influence (parents, family members, teachers, neighbors, friends, etc.) help each other navigate this tricky time of life? To start, remember that for anyone—adults, teens, child, etc., it’s about getting and staying healthy. When you focus on eating healthy foods and exercising regularly, your weight will take care of itself, but most importantly, you will feel your best! The number on the scale tells a story, but it’s only a tiny, tiny piece of the journey.

Here are some other tops tips and ways to help your teens remember that self-love and self-esteem is more than that dang number.

Eat healthy foods

Make sure your diet (what you eat, not the restricted-calorie-to-lose-weight kind) is full of the following:

It’s important to remember that restriction is never the name of the game. No foods are off-limits, but eat those treat-type foods in moderation after healthy foods. Kids can only eat what’s available. They can’t run to the store to get the healthy foods they need. That’s why it’s important to keep lots of healthy options on hand. A great way to get your teens involved is by involving them in grocery shopping and picking out healthy snacks and meals throughout the week.

On that note, it’s important to help your tween or teen learn about their health.  Many schools have dropped nutrition programs due to budgetary cuts. Help your teens know that they can come to you with health questions as well as discuss them with their family doctor. If they do have a serious weight issue, consider getting them a copy of Choose More, Lose More for Life and have them meet with their doctor to see if it can be adapted for their individual needs. (I only recommend a diet for youth that are under a doctor’s supervision). Having something they can read and reread, once they’ve left the doctor’s office, will help them become more knowledgeable about nutrition and is an excellent resource for them as they start mastering the basics of a balanced health plan.

Be active + limit screen time

60 minutes every day is the goal to get active. This hour doesn’t have to be all at one time. It can be worked in throughout the day. It also doesn’t necessarily mean “go to the gym for 60 minutes.” Kids can get active by playing a sport, walking rather than taking a bus, taking the longer way to class, even playing games like Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance with their friends. Anything to get them up and moving around. Ok, so let’s talk about the elephant in the room, since I did just mention being active AND a video game. Not only is screen time usually anti-active, but it also gives your teens more opportunities to be influenced by all that negative media (and social media) telling them how they should be. It’s important to teach your teens the importance of being present and staying active. They may not be happy about it, but I promise you, they’ll thank you later.

Sleep it off

Ahh sleep…As they get older, it becomes trickier to make sure your kids get the those precious ZZZs they need. With homework, extracurricular and social activities, part-time jobs, and all the other things on their schedule, sleep can take a backseat to everything else. And it’s not just about the amount of sleep. One study found that teens who go to bed earlier and get up earlier were healthier.

Remember that we are all perfectly imperfect!

Accept yourself. This goes for parents and teens alike. Remember, you’re leading by example even if you don’t realize it, so don’t compare yourself to others and embrace your imperfections (as I try to do!). After all, they’re what make you you! Everyone is different: different genes, bone and muscle structure, body shape, and so on, so comparing yourself to others is like comparing apples to oranges…There is no comparison! And if we all looked, talked, and acted the same, how boring would that be? Beyond boring in my book.

And parents, when it comes to you, be careful of the language you use, especially around teens. No, I’m not talking about swear words. I’m talking about phrases like these:

  • Does this make me look fat?
  • I can’t eat that!
  • I’m really watching my calories!
  • I feel so fat!

You get my drift. Kids mirror what’s around them, and phrases like these can lead to unhealthy attitudes about food and body image.

And don’t forget to be your own and your kid’s cheerleader! No matter how small the goal you’ve reached, celebrate every single achievement! But remember, if you are a teen or you know a teen who is struggling with weight issues, yes, it can be difficult for teens to get through the body image maze thrust upon them. With the proper perspective, some healthy habits, connecting them with quality resources, and a good support system of caring adults, they will not just survive this time, but thrive during this time, and enter adulthood as healthy, happy adults. 🙂


Related reading:

Workout Ideas: From Toddlers to Teens to You!
Get Fired Up! Top Tips to Create a Healthy Family BBQ
Building Healthy Habits: Kids’ Fitness at Every Age
Screen Time Killing + Boredom Busting Workout for Kids of All Ages (even 40+!)
10 Ways to Show Your Kids You LOVE Them!

27 Responses

  1. Funny thing is I really didn’t have “huge” body image issues until at least high school. I’m 32 now and constantly struggle with it. Currently trying to lose weight, lost at least 20 pounds, maybe more since I don’t know exactly how much I weighed when I started, but now its getting frustrating as I’ve plateaued and can’t get over it. Even if I do manage to lose the rest of the weight I want to lose(30 pounds), and keep it off, right now I don’t know if that will make a difference in how I see myself. I truly don’t think it will.

    I do STRONGLY agree with the language thing. My mother constantly says things like “I need to get rid of my love handles,” “I need to lose this fat,” and probably others I can’t remember and she’s not overweight! Even now I cringe when I hear her say these things because it makes me worry about how she sees me, and I already worry about how everyone else sees me.

    There’s also the opposite of people trying to tell you you’re skinny enough so you don’t have to lose any more weight. I have a co-worker(sorta “friend”) who keeps saying “you’re so skinny” to me. Yes, I’ve lost weight, but I still have a ways to go and I hate hearing her say it because the way she says it makes it seem like a bad thing that I’m still trying to lose weight. I know it doesn’t matter what she thinks and I do tune her out the best I can, but its frustrating as it just sounds like she doesn’t want me to lose the weight.

  2. I have a 10 year old son who is overweight I am also overweight since January of this year I have lost 80 lbs carb cycling and I also join weight watchers for support , I don’t want my son to have the same horrible teen years I did just so hard to get him motivated we have changed our eating habits but can’t seem to get him off the couch!!

  3. I have 4 children and with my 3rd one I got gestational diabetes. At that time I was told I would always have diabetes in my system but it was up to me to determine how and when it will resurface. Noone really made me aware of my son’s risks after birth. I switched pediatricians after I asked to have my son tested for diabetes and was told it’s my own insecurity that I was trying to put on him. Since 6th grade he’s been tested ever 3 months and he’s been pre with high cholesterol. I’ve always kept him in sports. But now he’s just maintaining with no weight loss. He just turned 16 and his primary dr has sent him to an endocrinologist where he is now taking a diabetic med to Lower his A1C, cholesterol is still high and he is showing signs of high blood pressure. The dr says he needs to lose weight. He has family history on both sides. My dad passed on 2006 and I got the diabetic, cholesterol and blood pressure scare. At that point I was motivated to lose all the weight for myself to get off meds and I lost over 80pds. But gradually added back half. So now I don’t know how to motivate myself yet alone my son. Dr says he is 80 pds over weight. He is in football now. But he only eats breakfast, skips lunch and after practice. He catches up. This happens on weekdays. On weekends I have to keep an eye out. Can you please offer me some guidance.

    1. In addition to the helpful hints in this post, one tool Chris and Heidi use with every single person they work with is to make and keep a small, simple promise to yourself every day. This tool might help you and your son get started and keep moving toward reaching your health and fitness goals. You can learn about the process here: https://heidipowell.net/8679/it-really-is-all-about-promises-2/. You can work together to make and keep your promises, and even be each other’s accountability partners. And remember, one of the most important things you can do to help your son is to be the best example you can be for him. We wish you both the best – you can do this!

  4. Hi, I love the show and I have the book and I just cant seem to get started… im 24 and I have 2 kids and ive been over weight for along time and I dont want my kids to follow in that path. Its not easy. But my 7 year old is well starting this path…I need to change and help my kids but seems no matter what I do nothing is helping… how do I start and stay committed

  5. I’ve recently lost 180lbs. And in the past 2 years I’ve been exercising quite a bit. My sons are 6 & 8 and at this point, neither have weight issues. One of the very best side effects of my exercise is that my boys want to join in. Parents, this can be a really fun great way to get your kids active and spend time with them. Go on hikes, do 5k’s, play some basketball in the driveway or at the park. My boys have both run 5K’s with me….now let me clarify, when they “run” the race with me it’s means that I’m not running for a “fast time,” they walk a bit and then sprint-“race me” to a specified spot up the course and one race I carried my 6 year old about half of it on my back. But they have a blast. They love to swim with me or go on hikes. We simply don’t buy junk food anymore and my kids don’t have the option of going to the store to get it themselves yet based on their age. We also homeschool, so getting it at school isn’t an option as well. Do they complain about the healthy options? Sure sometimes but oh well.

  6. Hi my name is Ashley I’m 15 years old. Ever since middle school I’ve been big. I use go get bullied about my weight, they used to call me hippopotamus it wasn’t the best 8th grade year. I set out a diet plan for myself but it always ends up not working. I was doing so good working out everyday had to run on the treadmill for 60min but once school started I lost it. The working out part I have down its just the healthy foods I should eat are what struggles me. I play lots of sports so I’m always active which is good for me. But I just need help on choosing what I can and can not eat. I watch your show extreme weight loss all the time and I think how can I look like them. I weigh almost 200 pounds now and I’m only a freshmen. I want to be able to look pretty wearing a prom dress that doesn’t make me look fat. I hope you get a chance to read this your my inspiration Heidi Powell if you have any encouraging words I’d love to hear them. Thanks sincerely Ashley MacLeod

    1. Ashley, you can do this. Start by cutting junk food like fast food, sodas, chips, etc… Drink more water, eat more veggies and fruits and protein. Chris’ book is amazing but I don’t know if you’re too young to carb cycle. Maybe it’ll have to be altered to make sure you get all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to keep growing. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible. Believe in yourself and don’t give up on your dream 🙂

    2. Hi Ashley,
      I know exactly where you’re coming from. I’m in my mid 20s now, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to eat healthy. But when I was in high school, I was very overweight. It made me feel like an outsider. I was always so depressed when I couldn’t shop where my friends shopped, or eat the same foods as they did. I didn’t understand that the food I was putting into my body was the reason I couldn’t lose. In high school and college I showed horses competitively. But ironically enough, as a freshman in college, I made it to Nationals. I was at my heaviest then. But I didn’t let my weight hold me back.

      I think the best piece of advice I can give you is to make small changes. Lots of small changes lead to big changes. Maybe instead of that pop-tart you had for breakfast, have some oatmeal with blueberries and an english muffin with peanut butter! Or instead of buying your lunch at school, pack your own so you know it’s full of healthy foods.

      Don’t be afraid to ask for help. After a few sprint triathlons this summer, I made the plunge and hired a coach to help me train for my first Half Ironman next summer (yes, I was inspired by Brandi’s episode). You can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t let your weight hold you back. Remember, five small changes can equal one big change :o)

    3. Hi Ashley! You can find everything you’ll need to know and do in Chris and Heidi’s book – this is the same program Julianna followed on the show (there’s a link to it in this post). Another key tool to achieving any goal is to make and keep small, simple promises to yourself every day. You can learn about this process here: https://heidipowell.net/8679/it-really-is-all-about-promises-2/. This is the first step Chris and Heidi take with every single person they work with, and it works! Just make one small change at a time, and make and keep one promise at a time, and you’ll be well on your way to developing healthy habits that will benefit you your entire life! And make sure to talk about this program with a parent or someone close to you, as well as your healthcare team, in case any modifications need to be made for you since you’re in your teens. You can do this! 🙂

    4. Ashley, you’re beautiful the way you are. You’re 15 years old and you’ve got your life between your hands. Dieting is not the good way to loose weigh. A diet means loose X pounds in X time. But when this time is done you’ll start eating as you were used to. What you need is change your lifestyle. It’s hard to loose weigh when you’re going to school because you spend the most of the time sitting on a chair. Ignore those bullies, there are just silly people you enjoy hurting others cause there are sad on the inside. They’ll be the outsiders in few years. You are so much better than them. If you’re strangling with the food try to not buy bad food and ask your parents to get you some healthy food. Try and give up bad food. Not completely but allow yourself to eat this kind of food only one day a week. At the beginning it’s hard but you get used to. And the time will pass and you won’t even think about that food anymore and will only want a bar of chocolate every couple of week.
      You will look pretty wearing your prom dress, no matter how much you weigh cause you are beautiful, no matter what others think, like says this song : ” I’m beautiful, no matter what they say, words can’t bring me down”.
      I’m sorry if it doesn’t help you or if you don’t understand me very well. I’m a French girl living in Ireland and I have been living there and learning English only for a year. But what I’m trying to say is mostly : believe in yourself. Keep trying. But don’t get yourself depressed you are better than people who are not trying. If you want someone to encourage you, advice you you can find me on Facebook.
      Lily Prade

  7. Thank you for all you do to help others.
    My son is 10 years old and weights 115 pounds, he hates sports, I have tried everything pretty much. I workout almost daily and try to set the sample for him about being healthy. His brother has been an athlete during his entire life, first soccer, then football; but he does not care; all he cares about is about electronics, it is very frustrating. He just doesnt want to be active. I dont know what to do anymore.

  8. Im seventeen and in my last year of school in n.ireland. I started yoyo dieting when I was 11-12 and stopped when I was 14. I was overweight to begin with and just got worse. Until my mum understood that I wasn’t happy when I looked in the mirror and stopped sugar coating my weight. It was harse at the time but it did make me understand that I needed to lose weight. Although I never wanted to do it for myself. In April I started to watch extreme weight loss USA. It changed my life completely, through the show I learnt that its not the number that counts but how you feel about yourself. I decided then I wanted to lose weight not for my mum or to compete with other girls but for me. I was 178Ibs on the ninth of april and now im 123Ibs . I know its not a massive amount lost, but already im starting to love myself that bit more. Im glad that you have done a teen one. Im finding it hard still to make life changes . Im finished with yoyo I want a new healthier me. I want to love my weight not hide it . And I will I will work until I achieve a healthy weight ,when I fall ill get up stronger, I have a continually long road ahead of me but with people like you and chris out there helping people, and giving advice I know ill get through it in the end. So a major thank you for making me look at the good tiger strips in the mirror instead of the my flaws. Cause im at warrior with the unhealthy part of myself, but good always wins. Thanks for everything ,you and chris are my inspirations. Xxxx

    1. Hi Aine: Thank you so much for your comment! You have done an amazing job working to get healthier – you are awesome! 🙂

  9. I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this article! Thank you for shedding some light on a problem that is often overlooked or not paid enough attention to. I’ve recently scoured the internet looking for “realistic” resources for my 10 year old daughter, who is overweight, severely lacking self esteem and confidence. I’ve recently purchased a book that seems to be directed towards kids and we are still going through it and talking about the changes that we will be starting soon. While talking to her I realize she had tears rolling down her rosy cheeks. An emotion I didn’t expect. She’s scared. And to tell you the truth – I am too!! Unfortunately, doctors don’t seem to have the time in their practices to follow their pediatric patients that are obese. Twice we’ve been told what to cut out and how many calories she “should” have etc and sent on our way. She’s left with the feelings of “my doctor thinks I’m fat” and I know that wasn’t her doctors intention. It’s unfortunate but reality. Thanks for all your great advice and information!

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