Welcome to Debate Club! Please be aware that this is a space for respectful debate, and that your ideas will be challenged here. Please remember to critique the argument, not the author.

Fostering a positive body image in teens and dealing with potential red flags

brookielaw Posts: 814 Member
My husband and I have custody of his 13 year old daughter. We believe she is a healthy, normal kid. She's not overweight, and she's not underweight. She is around 5'6" and weighs around 130 lbs with a muscular build. She wears size 9 juniors jeans.

I have noticed that lately each time she comes back from visiting her mother, there is a lot of inaccurate and negative self-talk. She'll call herself "fat," or talk about needing to "go on a diet" and lose weight. At home with us she eats a balanced diet and has treats when she feels like it. After this weekend's visit she came back and proudly announced that she weighed 126 and had lost 4 lbs this week.

We tell her that all healthy bodies have fat cells but that she is not "fat," any more than she has follicles that produce hair and is not "hair." We have stressed that the scale merely reflects the effect of gravity on your body and that there are many components to overall health, and that weight is just one of them. We have talked about how weight does not define you and how we all deserve to be loved and happy. We both tell her how beautiful she is, how proud we are of her, etc. I'll compliment how strong she is when she picks up her little sister.

I have struggled with my weight my entire life and am now a relatively "normal" size after having lost more than 200 lbs from my highest. I don't share those numbers around her (amount lost, current weight, etc) or engage in negative self-talk but I do try to lead by example for both of our girls, engaging in an active lifestyle and making the healthiest choices I can. I bring my own background up to explain my own sensitivity and because I have also talked to my husband about whether he feels my own activity is contributing to her perceptions. He honestly doesn't think my focus on my own health is hurting or contributing to the situation.

It just breaks my heart to see this beautiful young lady talk about needing to diet, but I'm starting to see some more behaviors that concern me. Thankfully, this sweet little girl is not a liar and will openly admit that she sometimes skips lunch at school, or will just have an apple for the whole school day. She frequently heads to the bathroom right after a meal.

I just wanted to get some insight into how to handle the negative self-talk and current behavior regarding dieting. Am I overreacting? Some of these behaviors appear to be potentially disordered and as a parent I just want the best for both of my girls. After discussing it with my husband last night, he plans on speaking to kiddo's bio mom to see if the subject can be gently broached there. We also plan on speaking to her doctor to see what insights he has, but does anyone have some insights that may help here?



  • tcunbeliever
    tcunbeliever Posts: 8,219 Member
    You are not overreacting, eating disorders are prevalent and it's definitely better not to ignore alarming behavior. I actually went through something similar with my daughter when she was about 8. A neighbor girl who was about 13 at the time started that kind of talk and refused to eat and became/is anorexic. Since they hung out together I started hearing a lot of the same chatter from my daughter. She was too fat, and she didn't want to eat, she wanted to be skinny like so-and-so, blah blah blah. I was adamant with her that growing bodies require sufficient nutrition to be strong and healthy and was quite upfront with her about the risks of not getting good nutrition - permanent damage to your bones and heart, etc...she's very active and I pointed out all the things she likes to do that she wouldn't be able to do with weak bones or a weak heart. It took a few months to sink in, but she's 12 now, about 5'7, and about 140 lbs (size 5)...nice and strong, nice and healthy, no longer down on herself for her size...she's a ballerina and many of her friends are just naturally tiny little girls, but, they are all healthy eaters and she is no longer hanging out with or impressed by little anorexic girl.

    Unfortunately little anorexic girl isn't getting any help from her family, they seem to take pride in how tiny and thin she is (5'2, about 80 lbs) and they don't think it's a problem for a 17 year old girl to refuse to eat anything at all for days at a time. It's totally jacked up, and there doesn't appear to be anything the school or social services can or will do about it. This is your child's life, don't ignore it, be honest with your daughter, there's nothing impressive about living with the effects of being malnourished.
  • CSARdiver
    CSARdiver Posts: 6,257 Member
    The best thing you can do is to lead by example. One of the most important things that any parent or guardian can do is provide an activity in which kids can take pride in. Everyone needs something in life that they alone can do better than most.

    Understand that she is likely getting bombarded with all the misinformation out there about weight management. Use what you have learned and teach her. Be honest and you may even share your personal challenges and successes to solidify this.

    As for the negativity - my high school history teacher was one of the shapers of my life and he imparted the following: "One of the most important and difficult tasks you will do in life is identifying the negative people and removing them from your life. The exception is family - the only thing you can do is limit your time with these people."

    I would approach it as her mother wants what is best, but is not as skilled in communicating this. Ask your daughter what she wants to improve and you both identify a goal and implement a plan on hitting this goal. Use SMART guidelines on establishing this.
  • brookielaw
    brookielaw Posts: 814 Member
    Thank you both for the insight! I will say that she is a pretty sedentary child and could definitely use some balance as far as activity, although she does ride horses with her Grandpa a couple of times a week, so maybe we can find something related to that. She used to play on a basketball team but this was the year that she'd have to take athletics for PE and opted out. I can occasionally drag her along on a family 5K (walk) or to the park, but something positive and physical with kids her own age would definitely not hurt.
  • deputy_randolph
    deputy_randolph Posts: 940 Member
    I was pretty overweight when I was younger. I hit almost 200lbs by 14 (I'm 5'3, so overweight might be an understatement). The internal negative voice wasn't my own. It was my mother's voice...not telling me that I was fat, but the voice she used to criticize herself.

    I lost close to 70lbs when I moved out of my parents' house and have maintained a healthy weight for 20 years. I don't blame my mom for my weight problems (I recognize that she didn't cause me to be overweight intentionally), but her behavior honestly was the main contributing factor. She was very overweight and had poor dietary habits.

    Focusing your discussions around health is better than focusing on weight. Your focus on improving your health may or may not be a contributing factor. It's hard to tell. Kids are innuntated with so much stupid garbage from the media and from other kids at school.

    What really broke the cycle of weight issues was finding a physical activity that I enjoyed. I played tennis on and off. I also had a biology course in college that had a unit devoted to nutrition. I had a real a-ha moment about food/nutrition after tracking my food intake/energy expenditure for 2 weeks for the class. Maybe you could find a summer program in the community through the local hospital or government that offers nutrition education for teens, family, or for yourself.
  • jeepinshawn
    jeepinshawn Posts: 642 Member
    I was very fat all through school, in fact by senior year I was 5'9" and around 250lbs. I never had a person tell me about portion control or size, and sugary snacks were always available. Both parents worked so I was on my own till dinner time.
    I really wish someone would have taught me the things you're doing for your family. Good job! I dropped the weight at the age of 39, and have kept it off for about a year now. My body image is still very distorted and I am working hard to figure out how to deal with that. Our perceptions after really hard to fix, so again good job of getting at it early.
  • brookielaw
    brookielaw Posts: 814 Member
    She's such a great kid. We spent some time last night trying to talk about WHY she feels this way but being a teenager the answers were of the "I just do" variety. We talked about examples of balance---she was eating some ice cream and we talked about how there was nothing wrong with that, discussing portion control and balancing nutrition but she wasn't into the idea of a nutrition or even a cooking class. I am on the lookout for a one-time class, and that may change her mind. She wants to be more active, which is great. She and I went on a short ride in January and I covered hand signals and bike safety, changing gears etc, and she caught on like a champ. She and I can ride and her dad is going to play basketball with her. We'll see how it goes. She'll be at her Mom's again this weekend so I guess we'll see if the connection to visitations is a factor.
  • Lounmoun
    Lounmoun Posts: 8,426 Member
    Theo166 wrote: »
    Why not teach her about BMI and show her she is perfectly normal for her height and build, not even close to 'overweight'? If she wants to look leaner then maybe discuss lifting?

    I agree with telling her or having her doctor help you tell her what a normal weight is. I have talked to my teenage dd about how she is still growing, what a healthy weight range would be for her height. She was not overweight but started making worried noises about getting fat.
    We have talked about nutrition and eating a variety of foods. (Eat some protein foods not just carbs. Try to have a fruit or vegetable with meals. Drink more water. If you are very active it is right to eat more than when you are sedentary.)
    I did not suggest she change the look of her body but mainly focused on being healthy, strong and having fun.
  • brookielaw
    brookielaw Posts: 814 Member
    Yes, we have discussed BMI and I have shown her that she falls into the normal range. Actually that was the very first thing I did when it came up on Sunday after we picked her up. We are hoping the doctor can reinforce this. She also knows she can use my heavy bag and/or kettle bells and weights with supervision if she is interested in building muscle.
  • JDixon852019
    JDixon852019 Posts: 312 Member
    Maybe you can join a gym and weightlift with her. Help her focus on fitness and setting fitness related goals instead of chasing numbers on a scale.
  • neldabg
    neldabg Posts: 1,452 Member
    I'm in my early twenties, so I still remember being teenager quite well. Whenever I brought up the topic of weight loss and health with my parents after visiting my then pediatrician, they were always quick to reassure me that I wasn't that big and never took an active effort to help me manage my weight. While I do not resent them for this and while I do understand that they wanted me to not have body image issues, I would've really appreciated it if they had tried a better approach, perhaps scheduling active family plans and emphasizing balance and portion control. However, my dad is slightly overweight and my mom is obese, so maybe they couldn't have taught me anything useful anyhow. I think the approach you're taking is great so far. Discussing BMI and its limits and corroborating your words to your stepdaughter with input from a doctor would also help. Stay consistent and your words and reassurance will hopefully reach her.
  • 3rdof7sisters
    3rdof7sisters Posts: 486 Member
    Sounds like you are reinforcing good body image values, so congratulations for being good, caring parents.
    We are bombarded with this issue daily from multiple sources. I am an old lady and I can still remember how it felt to be 13. Keep doing what you are doing. You didn't say too much about her mother, but is it possible to have a conversation with her mother about this?
    Does she have any interest in cooking? If so, perhaps you could ask her to help plan and prepare healthy meals.
    Being a good parent is one of the most difficult jobs we do.
    If it is any consolation to you, someday your daughter may come and thank you. Hang in there Mom, you will make it through this, just stick with what you are doing.
  • fbchick51
    fbchick51 Posts: 240 Member
    KassLea22 wrote: »
    I don't think you're overreacting at all. That age is a very tough time for girls with everything. If she wasn't self-conscious or insecure about her weight, it would most likely be something else.

    I'm going to take a little bit of a different approach here. I suggest that you find an activity, preferably a physical activity like a sports team, or a club she could join. Being on any team is really beneficial with the self-esteem of young people. It's a support network, it's a good way to make friends, and it's doing something that's ultimately very good for your body. All of those things combined are really good for the self-esteem of young boys and girls. there have been tons of studies done about the benefits of being in sports or in activities for young people. there are also plenty of club teams were you don't even have to be that athletically gifted to participate.

    I volunteer with an organization called girls on the run. It's a running club for elementary to early high school girls. While we have quite a few students who are overweight, but the majority of them are normal weight. In the years I've worked with this organization I've seen complete changes in the self-confidence of a lot of our young girls because we really work on building a healthy active lifestyle and having positive self image. A lot of girls came to this club with various insecurities and a lot of them didn't have friends and were able to find a great group of girls that were positive and healthy and active.

    There are many things you can do and I'm sure people on this board will have a lot more experience with raising teenage girls that I don't have that will be able to give you some great advice. But I think this would be a good option to supplement that.

    I second this advice and there is research out there that actually supports this. Body positivity starts by gaining an overall healthy self image. Find activities that she enjoys and she feels confident in doing. Even if it's not athletic type activities, encouraging her to engage in activities that make her feel good about herself will go a long way to giving her a strong self -esteem which helps more in building a good body image then all the talk about nutrition and workouts.

    My teenage daughter is 17. While not overweight, she's far from the typical skinny teenager look most girls her age strive for. But we've managed to avoid the body issues by simply encouraging her love of arts and writing. She is far more vested and interested in perfecting her writing and painting skills that she just doesn't have the time and energy to dwell on body image issues. Of course, I still encourage her to be active and to eat well, but not from the perspective of body size or looks, but rather from the perspective of what her body can do for her.
  • CSARdiver
    CSARdiver Posts: 6,257 Member
    brookielaw wrote: »
    Yes, we have discussed BMI and I have shown her that she falls into the normal range. Actually that was the very first thing I did when it came up on Sunday after we picked her up. We are hoping the doctor can reinforce this. She also knows she can use my heavy bag and/or kettle bells and weights with supervision if she is interested in building muscle.

    Sounds to me like you are doing everything right - which is simply by being positive and active in her life. You are also treating her like an adult, which it does not sound like the same treatment she is getting elsewhere.

    Much of this is going to come to her in time as she becomes more self aware. I highly recommend the book by Drs. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves - Emotional intelligence 2.0 One of the best written books on the topic.
  • brookielaw
    brookielaw Posts: 814 Member
    I am currently training for a triathlon (to finish, not to place) so she does see me walk, go to the gym to swim, and bike on the regular. Unfortunately for her my swimming gym (2-3x/ week) is my crucial "me time," and she's still too young but that can be crucial "daddy time" for her. She is invited on our monthly family 5Ks but we don't force her. Sunday morning strength training is also "me" time but if she's willing to get up at 8AM, I'll talk to my trainer to see if I can bring her along on our weekends. I bet she'd love strength training once she gives it a try.

    All of this insight has been helpful. I agree, when she finds "her thing" her confidence will soar. One of us has to open a dialogue with Mom about it too. There are some issues that of course complicate that but coming from a common love for Big Girl should make it easier.

    I'm going to check that book out this evening. Thank you everyone!
  • ShrinkingViolet1982
    ShrinkingViolet1982 Posts: 919 Member
    Good on you for doing your best to curb this before it gets too serious. Is there a chance to get her on the "Strong is the new skinny" bandwagon alongside information that shows her 130 at 5'6" is perfectly great? I wish someone had shown me that kind of encouragement as a teenager. I would have been so much more fit instead of striving for skinny (which I would never be - I'm built like a dwarf)
  • 4legsRbetterthan2
    4legsRbetterthan2 Posts: 19,588 MFP Moderator
    She frequently heads to the bathroom right after a meal.

    do you think she is purging? if so I would be all over that and trying to find her help.
  • brookielaw
    brookielaw Posts: 814 Member
    We scheduled the doctor's appointment. I don't know about the purging but the bathroom visits are pretty clear. Then again in fairness, I have the bladder of a peanut and hit the restroom frequently as well. I don't see anything unusual about her nails or hands but I realize that's only one possible sign. The kid is lousy about puking when sick...at 13 she still has not mastered the art of hitting a bucket or toilet so I HOPE there would be clearer signs if she purged.

    The alarm bells on the entire situation really went off just this past Sunday* so we're being as proactive as possible. Meals Mon and Tues were at her grandparents' house and yesterday I headed for the gym when she and her Dad got home so I don't think we've done the best job on that due to lack of opportunity. When both of us are home one of us is going to casually hang out in the area near the BR with some busy work to listen. (Wow. I hate that I just said that but it is solely to look out for that potential behavior). As much as we both have talked to her about all of this since Sunday I am reluctant to ask outright about purging so as not to present the idea or hit her with too much heavy talk and have her shut down. Ugh, I'm going to have to bring the Grandparents in on this a bit, which stinks because Grandma thinks she's slick and she's about as subtle as a box of rocks (and we love her for doing so much for us).

    *Alarm bells from Sunday = the diet and fat talk have come and gone for a while but Sunday was when the pattern with the talk following visits became clearer and the observation about the bathroom came up as well.