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. Hey I?m 15 years old with type 2 diabetes and I weight nearly 300 pounds. I have tried to stay as active as I could. I joined track for 2 years, Marching Band, and I?m even doing the school musical which has a lot of dancing to stay active. My mom and my doctors aren?t really helping me much. I am on my own and I wish somebody would help me. Please Heidi please I really need your help. I?m so lost right now. I?m headed towards an early death if this doesn?t come off of me. And I?m tired of being bullied all the time and feeling worthless. Please.

    1. Hi Marquita: Thank you so much for your comment. I’m so sorry you’re being bullied…that is so wrong! You can begin today by eating healthy foods and getting in some movement. Dancing is a great option! Take baby steps, and you’ll get there! 🙂

  2. Thank you for your suggestions! I am struggling with a 13 year old and helping her take charge of her health. I get very frustrated as a parent and feel helpless sometimes. I really wish their were more programs for teens to help them with their weight struggles, but everything is geared towards adults.

  3. The goal in life should be to be strong. To have energy. To use food and exercise to fuel your mind. To improve your athleticism. If you can change your mindset to focus on the big picture, your overall appearance will reflect that. Amber Elizabeth Dodzweit is a great role model for young girls. Check her out on instagram.

  4. This is so true. I used to diet from the age of 6 and promised myself I would never weigh more than 55 lbs when I was 7 or 8. An impossible promess to keep. The bigger I was getting, the worst my self-esteem was. And I kept dieting until the age of 17 (88 lbs). Then I realized it was not the way to live a happy life. And I worked hard on my own to change the way I see my body, accept to eat everything I wanted. And one day I found out why I always felt too fat. I remember my mom telling how fat she was and she should diet to drop few pounds. She used to do it all the time. Never happy about herself. Her weigh was perfectly fine. She wasn’t fat, she was perfectly normal. But I get used to see my body through my mom’s eyes. I understood she was sick, in depression and that was the reason of it. And I started eating everything I wanted, discovered I loved chocolate, put weigh on and got self-esteem. I’m now 20, weigh 129,8 lbs for 5,4 feet.
    Why write all of it ? To make understand people how you can destroy a child self-esteem and make her feel more preoccupied by her weigh than getting treats for being good and always wander if she is too fat and should diet again. Be careful about what you say in front of kids because this the way they’ll think ordinary life looks like, normal thoughts.

  5. Heidi,
    My name is katie and I’m 25. I had a csection back in February for my beautiful baby boy. I am now struggling to get rid of the csection tummy. I am doing a high protein low carb diet and walking 2 miles every morning. I’m scared crunches will make it worse. Do you have any tips? ?

    1. Congratulations on your new baby boy – that’s awesome! First of all, you’ll want to check with your doctor to see if you have diastasis recti (separated abdominal muscles). If you do, he/she can help you know how to work around this issue so it doesn’t get worse. As far as general tips, check out Chris and Heidi’s carb cycling program in their book, “Choose More, Lose More for Life.” The book contains their complete nutrition and exercise program, and it can work no matter how much weight you want to lose, or even if you just want to adopt a healthy eating and exercise plan. Learn about the nutrition basics here: https://heidipowell.net/2713/carb-cycling-101/. It’s an awesome program!

  6. Great article. Nutrition is 80% of weightloss. Parents control what’s in the house. I have heard so many people say that it’s expensive to feed a family nutritious meals, but where there is a will there is a way. Here are some options: cut cable and go to internet based tv -the savings is anywhere from $1000-$2000 a year. You can watch EWL on HULU. Make your own laundry soap savings is $300 a year. As a parent slowly change your family’s diet. Introduce salads for dinner, remove the pop tarts and replace them with a great shake for breakfast. Be the example. Make the sacrifice for what is truly important.

  7. I want to thank you for this..my 15 year old is 4 ft 11 in tall and found out she weighs 198 as her obese Mom that kills me I myself am 5ft 5 in and weigh 300 and it is so hard to keep it up when you sabotage yourself all the time…i now have a 10 yr old daughter who calls herself chubby and that bothers me too but at the same time my 9 year old daughter hates it when someone calls her skinny so girls with weight issues is what I live with…but it starts with me and this helps put things in perspective….thanks for that?

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