Since COVID-19 emerged, people have had to adjust their work schedules, lifestyles and routines for quarantine. There have been significant changes in people’s diets and workout plans. Some people are snacking more between Zoom calls and finding fewer opportunities to exercise. After the first few months of quarantine, over 40% of remote workers have reported quarantine weight gain. On the other hand, some people went through weight loss while staying at home because they weren’t able to find time to eat or exercise as they adjusted to their new schedules.
Fluctuations in weight are normal, but can easily be a source of anxiety. Teens are the most susceptible group when it comes to being anxious and insecure about body image. 47% of teens reported that weight and body image have a negative impact on their day-to-day mental wellbeing in 2020. Being concerned about their body was ranked higher than stressors such as social media or financial struggles.
The importance of body positivity
The teenage years are a formative time for when one begins to have an opinion about their body image. A positive and healthy body image is when one feels happy and satisfied with their body, as well as being comfortable with accepting the way they look. Low self-esteem and poor body image are risk factors for the development of body dysmorphia, risky dieting strategies, eating disorders and mental health disorders like depression.
People with body dysmorphia cannot control negative thoughts about their “flaws” and don't believe people who tell them that they look fine. Body dysmorphia often develops in adolescents and teens, and research shows that it affects men and women almost equally. People often stereotype body dysmorphia as a female disorder because they often associate body image with “simply wanting to be skinny”, but in reality muscle dysmorphia, obsession with muscle building and extreme dieting, is also a type of body dysmorphia commonly seen in men. The rates for muscle dysmorphia in men is actually similar to the rates of anorexia nervosa in women.
Aside from body dysmorphia, eating disorders are also a prevalent issue related to one’s relationship with food. More than 9% of the US population, which is nearly 30 million people in this country, have experienced eating disorders in their lifetime. Eating disorders range from binge eating to avoiding or restricting food intake, as well as more severe and dangerous eating habits. As common as eating disorders are, it is often overlooked. Most disordered eating are usually well hidden, so it can be extremely difficult to tell if someone is joking about “being on a diet” or if they are truly distressed about the “2 pounds they just gained”. If you’re not sure if your teen is at risk, keep reading! We have signs to look out for that can help you assess if your teens are struggling with eating disorders.
With Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner, holiday eating can be a trigger for those who are experiencing concerns about their body.
Here are 4 tips on how parents can help teens build body positivity:
1. Start with yourself
As a parent, you have a strong influence on your teen’s self image. The way you talk about your own body can impact how your teen views themself. Self-deprecating humor about your physical appearance may instill the negative ideas your kids have about themselves. For example, when you make fun of your stretch marks or postpartum weight-gain, it can send the wrong message to your self-conscious teen. You can also try replacing phrases like:
“Oh no, I gained weight!” with “There is a slight influx in my weight today.”
“Ugh, I wish I didn’t put on so many pounds after the pregnancy.” with “I am thankful to be able to carry a life to term, the weight gain was a part of the magical process.”
“I’m on a diet, I’m not going to eat that.” with “This holds a lot of nutritional value and will supply my body with what it needs.”
“I don’t fit into my old jeans anymore.” with “These pairs of jeans were from when I was 22, after 20 years, it’s normal that I’ve outgrown them!”
When you speak of your own body kindly, it teaches your teen to recognize how powerful their bodies are and learn to compliment themselves.
2. Focus on health
It is completely healthy if your teens want to make better diet choices or work out more. Body positivity focuses on the mindset of wanting to be healthier. Remind your kids that self-improvement plans should not necessarily stem from being unsatisfied with your current self, but should rather be rooted in a desire to reach their aspirations. Instead of expressing guilt around certain foods or missed opportunities to exercise, make sure your kids focus on the importance of being healthy. The biggest differentiator between healthy and unhealthy habits is that unhealthy thoughts are usually negative, obsessive, and looking for quick and instant fixes. Here are some ways to help distinguish healthy and unhealthy improvement desires:
Obsessing over weight, dieting and calories- Stresses over small weight gains/losses, calculates every calorie intake and refuses to go above or under even by a little
Uncomfortable eating around others- Certain food rituals such as cutting food into small pieces, excessive chewing or avoiding to eat around others
Talks about body in an obsessive and negative manner- Checks the scale or mirror frequently and becomes distress to see their weight or body
Punishment cycle- After consuming food, punishes themselves by exercising or fasting to counter the calories
Positive connections with food- Excited to enjoy every meal, and instead of focusing on calories, focuses on the nutritional value
Maintain consistency- Consistency when consuming food, rather than skipping meals or binge eating as well as regular exercise habits (Read our article to learn more about remaining active during quarantine)
3. Have a factual discussion
Even when we do our best to model a healthy relationship with food and our bodies, the media may instill a lot of false expectations for your teens.You can try to mitigate the effects of this by helping your teens understand the relationship between weight and their happiness. Start with a discussion about what they think of societal norms around the topic. Then, ask them how they feel about themselves. If they express discontent, try to name their feelings with them.
Then, deconstruct cultural body norms by naming untrue associations around words like “Fat” and “Skinny”. Talk about different body types, the genetic factors, and help them identify what size and weight metrics are actually indicators of their health. Talks like these focus on the facts of well-being and health, and it will teach your kids to build self-confidence and respect the differences towards other people’s physical appearance as well.
4. Sweet reminders around the house
In addition to conversations, you can also reinforce how much your teens value their non-physical attributes in a myriad of ways. For example:
Verbal compliments: Tell your kids daily that they are loved. Get specific on a compliment about their achievements, efforts, or skills that you noticed recently instead of their appearances. Tell them you love their sense of humor, work ethic, or kind heart. Of course, letting them know that you think they are beautiful is also important, but also emphasize other unique personality traits that make them who they are.
Cute notes: If verbalizing words of affirmation is hard for you, leaving notes for your kids works just as well. Post-it notes in their lunch boxes, on the fridge, or on the bathroom mirror are all pleasant surprises you can give your teens. Even a text can go a long way for them! Quarantine and holiday season means your teen is spending more time at home, and leaving positive reminders can cultivate a warm environment for them to build a healthy body image.
Digital minimalism: As mentioned, many kids are spending more time at home and a majority of them are spending that time on their devices. You can check in with your teen to ask them who they like to follow and what they love about the content. If you notice any accounts providing unrealistic body expectations, you might want to have a conversation about that! And of course, even if the accounts they follow are great, it is still healthy to set rules around your teen’s allowed screen time. (Look forward to an upcoming article about boundary setting!) Less time spent online can decrease them living up to societal ideals of body types and problems like online bullying and body shaming.
5. Change their outlooks on food
Holidays typically mean a lot of good, hearty foods. A lot of teens feel extra anxious about holiday eating, but you can help them avoid the stress. If you’re teen is willing, you can invite them to help take charge of the family meal by planning the menu, grocery shopping, and preparing the food together. And in that process, instead of banning foods, try to teach your teen about portioning. Make them feel that food is fun and tied to good memories, not self-denial and punishment.
Here are some expert tips on helping your teen eat mindfully this holiday:
Don’t skip meals to prepare for the big dinner:
We mentioned the importance of consistency when it comes to building healthy eating habits. Skipping meals before the holiday dishes sounds like a good move, but nutrition experts say otherwise. Stacy Goldberg, nutrition consultant, said that this impacts your blood sugar negatively and leads you to crave unhealthy foods or binge. Instead, a high-protein snack bar or smoothies for a midday treat will help your body maintain the level of energy it needs.
Healthy food swaps: Perhaps challenge each other to give facorite dishes a healthy twist: cauliflower wings or spinach lasagna, anyone? There are so many ways to tweak classic holiday dishes in order to cut down on sugar and empty calories and amp up the nutrients. Invite your kids to find healthy alternatives with you!
Hydration is key: People often mistake the sensation of thirst for hunger, it’s just something our bodies do! During the holidays, it is easy to forget to stay hydrated when all the food, beverages, and loved ones are around you. "Avoid dehydration by drinking water throughout the day and refilling your glass during your holiday dinner," Goldberg suggests.
Mindful eating: Meal time can often be a rushed activity to do during our busy day-to-day, which makes the holidays the perfect opportunity to practice mindful eating. Mindful eating the act of being aware of the food and drink you put into your body. Instead of shoving food down, you are acknowledging the feelings, thoughts, and reactions to the food you consume. Mindful eating begins before the consumption of the item, it starts from shopping for the ingredients, cooking, and serving. To practice mindful eating, you need to have in-the moment awareness during every step of the food journey. Simply start by taking a few deep breaths, and tune-in all your senses. Smell the food, and appreciate the textures, colors, and shapes of your dishes. More importantly, ask yourself, “How hungry are you?” Are you consuming the food to satisfy emotional needs such as stress or boredom? Challenge both yourself and your teens to listen to your body carefully as you consume your hard prepared meal!
Mindfulness is an important practice, and it applies to more than just eating, read our article about mindful parenting!)
One of the best gifts you can give your kids this holiday is to empower them with confidence. Help them celebrate body positivity by showing kindness to yourself, your teens, and everyone else. Follow the Cherish blog for more parenting advice.