As you can probably tell, Adolescent Medicine’s priority for overweight and obese teens is for them to learn and enjoy healthy behaviors that they can carry into adulthood, not lose a certain number of pounds in a certain amount of time.
This approach involves investment and caring for one’s body, no matter what its size or shape. It involves focusing on health rather than thinness. To do this, a teen has to value and care for their body. For most teens, especially those who are overweight or obese, this can be a very difficult task.
I always find it paradoxical that as more and more of the U.S. is obese or overweight, weight discrimination continues to spiral out of control. We logically know that overweight and obese people are just as likely as a thin person to be smart, talented, brave, funny, etc. But overweight and obese adults continue to face discrimination.
For teens, it can be even worse. Overweight and obese teens are almost twice as likely to be bullied than teens who are not overweight or obese. Bullying is incredibly hard on a teen’s self-esteem. Victims of bullying have an increased likelihood of depression, poor school performance, and even physical complaints.
Then we have the media’s overwhelming focus on thin people. In the vast majority of movies, TV, and magazines, it’s the thin people who fall in love, have adventures, get rich, or succeed academically. You can’t go on Facebook, read a magazine, or turn on the radio without hearing someone talk about the amazing new way to lose weight fast. In the grocery store, the latest magazine cover talks about whose “beach body” is the best, with the “worst” looking perfectly normal- and even on the thin side- to me.
Self-esteem shouldn’t be based on weight. But for many teens it is, and how can you ask someone to commit to nurturing and improving the health of a body they have been taught to dislike and be ashamed of? Often the desperation to change their weight or their body starts off unhealthy eating patterns like skipping meals and “yo-yo dieting,” which are decidedly unhealthy.
It can feel like wading against a tidal wave to try to convince your teen that they should love their body and treat it well. Here are a few tips.
- Bullying is completely unacceptable, in every circumstance, no matter what. See Dr. Berman’s post about “traditional” bullying (as opposed to “cyberbullying”). Contact the school if this is happening. They have a legal obligation to make sure the bullying stops.
- Don’t comment on the weight of other people you see, whether they are fat or thin. If your teen does, get them thinking about why they said that comment and what that means. If they say, “Oh look, she is so thin,” you might say, “Do you think that means she is happy?” If they say “Oh, he is so fat,” you could say, “How do you think that affects him?” They may look at you strangely, but you may also start a good conversation.
- It’s fine to compliment your teen on looking nice, but make sure you focus on their inner qualities too. Remind them they are smart, funny, generous… whatever they are.
- Encourage teens to use their body to do fun things. Take a dance or yoga class. Play in the snow. Get a massage. Almost noone’s body looks like a magazine cover in real life, but our bodies can still be healthy, strong bodies for us to live in and enjoy.
- Be a role model for healthy body image. Make a rule with yourself that you won’t say anything negative about your body or weight while your teen is around. Your teen looks to you for guidance and perspective on many matters (even if it seems like they don’t.)
The next post will be full of websites for you and your teen that promote health, size acceptance, and media literacy. Then we’ll tackle “intuitive eating,” and then… who knows? What do you want to hear about? Suggestions are welcome!