Mom, Am I Fat?

Helping Your Teen Have a Positive Body Image

a teenage girl looking at body in mirror
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Mom, Am I Fat? What You Need to Know About Teen Body Image

Fashion magazines don't care about teen body image, or they would provide more images of women and men with healthy bodies. Instead, the magazines make it no secret that our society is obsessed with thinness. Models and movie stars are presented as examples of what is supposed to be considered attractive. Parents, other adults and peers can sometimes reinforce the message that only a thin body is an attractive body.

It is important for parents to be able to promote a healthy body image in their teen as part of helping their child have an overall positive self and body image.

Body-Image: Where Does It Come From?

It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly where a teenager gets his or her body image from, but there are a few main influences: media, parents, other adults, peers and health professionals.

  • Media. Television and movies often promote underweight women as being the most attractive. The average model today is 25% thinner than the average American woman. It is impossible to see very thin women on TV, in movies, in magazines, on billboards, or on the internet and not begin to feel that being thin equals being attractive.
  • Parents. How we feel about our own bodies influences how our children feel about theirs. If we are constantly unsatisfied with our own appearance, our teens begin to think it is okay or normal to feel dissatisfied with theirs. Additionally, parents that negatively comment on their teens’ weight or body type can destroy any positive body image a teen might have.
  • Other Adults. From the moment a baby is born, people talk about a child’s appearance. From “How handsome he is!” to “Look at those chubby legs!” to less flattering comments – it seems like everyone has an opinion about a baby’s body and attractiveness. Although the infant doesn’t internalize these messages at this point, it is easy to forget how other people’s comments will have an impact in the future.
  • Peers. If a teen’s friends are telling your child that she is fat, or if she is teased about her weight by other peers, she is more likely to have a negative body image. As children get older, their peers have a great deal of influence on how they behave, so peer comments can be unusually powerful.
  • Health Professionals. Because weight can be a sensitive subject for many teens, it is important for health care providers to handle the subject with care. One thoughtless or misinterpreted comment from a provider can negatively impact how a teen feels about her weight and body type.

The Risks of a Negative Body-Image

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists these statistics about unhealthy body image and eating disorders:

  • Almost 54 percent of American girls and women aged 12 to 23 years old are unhappy with their bodies
  • One-third of high school students thought they were overweight when they were not
  • Roughly 75 percent of girls as young as 9 years old have dieted from 2 to 5 times in a given year
  • At any given time, 5 to 10 million women and girls have eating disorders that harm their health, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia

Many women have a negative body image, and this negative image can lead to an eating disorder.

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia, and these diseases can have significant health consequences:

  • Anorexia (or anorexia nervosa) is a serious and sometimes deadly disease. People with anorexia see themselves as overweight even when they are not. They limit the amount of food they eat, restrict the kinds of food they will eat and can compulsively exercise to try to keep their weight down. It is estimated that up to 10% of people with anorexia will die from complications of the disease.
  • Bulimia is an eating disorder of binging and purging. People with bulimia will eat, often to excess, and will find ways of ridding their bodies of the food. Purging can mean vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise or otherwise "getting rid of" what was eaten through other means. Bulimia can lead to various physical problems such as teeth erosion, swallowing issues, rupture of the esophagus, stomach damage, rectal damage and dehydration.

    Promoting a Healthy Body Image

    If a negative body image can lead to an eating disorder with serious consequences, then it is important for a parent to help promote a healthy body image in their teen. Although our teens are being bombarded with messages about how “imperfect” their bodies are, there are still many things parents can do to promote a positive body image.

    • Be a role model. If you love your body, your teen will see that as normal and healthy. Avoid constant talk of dieting or your own “imperfections.” Your comments about yourself can be very influential in how your teen sees herself.
    • Limit media messages. Although you can’t control everything your teen sees or experiences, you are influential in how much media your child is exposed to. Too much TV isn’t good for a teen for many reasons, so limiting screen time can help.
    • Be a media interpreter. If you are seeing images on TV or in a magazine that promote ideas you think are damaging, talk about it with your teen. Often those images we see are greatly enhanced to remove “imperfections” -– it’s impossible for a teen to live up to a body ideal that doesn’t even exist in real life.

    Getting Help

    If you feel that your teen has anorexia or bulimia, do not hesitate to get help as soon as possible. Contact your pediatrician or primary care provider and discuss your concerns. Eating disorders can be complex issues and you made need the help of a mental health specialist as well as a healthcare provider in order to help your teen with the condition.

    If you feel that your teen has a legitimate weight issue and is overweight or obese, again enlist the help of your health care provider. It might be helpful to talk with your provider ahead of time and ask them how they could approach the subject with your teen. When a provider discusses the weight issues with care and concern about your teen’s health, it can be an effective intervention and the first step towards a healthier lifestyle for your child.


    Body Image: Loving Yourself Inside and Out. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 07 August 2008.

    Girls and Body Image. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 07 August 2008.

    Eating Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. 07 August 2008.

    Shroff, Hemal and Thompson, J. Kevin. ”Peer Influences, Body-image Dissatisfaction, Eating Dysfunction and Self-esteem in Adolescent Girls”Journal of Health Psychology2006 11(4):533-51.

    Statistics and Study Findings. Eating Disorder Coalition for Research, Policy and Action. 07 August 2008.

    Teenagers with Eating Disorders. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. 07 August 2008.

    Tool Kit for Teen Care: Media and Body Image. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 07 August 2008.

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