I was looking at a social media page recently and saw a video that struck a cord with me. There is a new video campaign that portrays girls ages 5-11 years old with curly hair. These girls tell all the things they dislike about their hair. In the end, the mothers of the girls show them how positive and amazing it is to be unique. The final message to the consumer is that people are more likely to be accepting of themselves if those around them also have positive self-image (i.e. the girls will love their curls if their own moms love their hair). The purpose of the campaign is to sell hair products, but watching this video reminded me not only of my patients, who often come to see me with poor self-esteem and distorted body image, but of my own youth. See video here
I personally hated my natural hair for the first 30 years of my life! As an African American woman, I’ve spent most of my life trying to change my hair into something completely different. I’ve chemically straightened, flat ironed, added extensions, and worn wigs in an effort to escape the tightly curled mass that grows from my head. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with changing your hairstyle, wearing extensions, or completely changing your look, but what was wrong with my situation was that I was not accepting of myself.
For the girls in the video ad and the teens I meet on a daily basis (both boys and girls), I hope it doesn’t take them over 3 decades to find personal acceptance. Unfortunately, teens are subject to the same standards of beauty that are portrayed in the media to adults. Most magazine photos are cropped and changed, celebrities pay significant amounts of money on surgery, personal trainers, and personal chefs to help them maintain a body type that is not the norm. These unrealistic ideas of beauty can lead to dangerous behaviors.
The Centers for Disease Control has a survey of risky behaviors that the ask students to complete every other year. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey asks about some of the dangerous dieting behaviors teens may use in high school to achieve weight loss. The most current data from 2013 found that 13% of high school students skipped eating for 24 hours in order to lose weight and 4.4% vomited or used laxatives in the month before the survey in order to lose weight. This data compels me to encourage all adults who have an impact in a teen’s life to foster acceptance and positive self esteem instead of feeding into the notion that they should change their body by dangerous means.
So how can parents help teens with accepting their unique traits?
1. Model good behavior. Just as the girls in the curly hair ad felt better about themselves when their mom modeled self acceptance the teens we know are watching our behavior.
2. Avoid negative body talk. If your teen hears you complain about love handles or want to lose weight from your thighs, what message does that send to them? Sure we may want to improve our physical fitness or avoid being overweight, but instead of ridiculing ourselves, let’s talk about our strengths. For example, I’ve recently had a baby and my abdomen is a lot different now. Instead of saying I have a ‘flabby stomach’ I call it my ‘badge of honor.’ That abdomen held the 2 people I love the most in the world for 9 months.
3. Do give more compliments about behavior and characteristics you admire more often than compliments about physical attributes. The teens I treat with disordered eating tell me that when they hear ‘ you’re so pretty’ or ‘so thin’ they feel like they need to keep up that image. Try complimenting the effort a teen may put into a project or their wit more routinely than their appearance.
4. If you’re concerned your teen may be suffering for distorted body image, depression, or and eating disorder seek help. Tell your teen you’re concerned. Reach out to your primary care provider or a counselor.
Do you have other thoughts about how to encourage self acceptance?