Love Your Selfie

A teen's guide for parents: What never to say about my body

April 30, 2014 at 9:02 AM ET

Do I look fat? Is she prettier than me? Is my hair too frizzy? Do I have man shoulders?

Your teens may consistently ask you these and other questions about their appearance. In fact, 85 percent of teen girls worry about their appearance frequently and regularly, according to the TODAY/AOL Body Image Survey. And this isn’t just an issue for teen girls. The survey showed that 56 percent of teen boys also show concern for how their bodies look.

“At this age, they are trying to figure out, ‘Am I this kind of person or am I that kind of person?’ And that is both interpersonal, intrapersonal but also physically as well,” says Mia Holland, Ed.D., Chair of the Studies in Human Behavior Programs and Doctor of Social Work Program at Capella University.

As part of the TODAY series, "Love Your Selfie, Reclaiming Beauty," we spoke to young women and experts for advice on how to help your teens have a positive body image. Parents, here are eight things to avoid doing and what you can do instead to help build your teen’s confidence.

1. DON’T: Critique your own body in front of your teen

Don’t talk about how fat you feel today or how you wish you had a flatter stomach.

“Many mothers don't even realize that their teens are paying attention or absorbing their criticism of their own bodies,” says Julie Zeilinger, 21, founder of the teenage girl blog the FBomb and author of College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year and A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word.

With 40 to 60 percent of elementary school girls concerned about their weight, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, even the youngest of kids can pick up on their parents’ own insecurities.

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Parents should model body positivity by eating healthy and exercising. Holland, a certified personal trainer, recommends engaging in physical activities a family can do together to encourage being fit.

2. DON’T: Criticize your kids if they are adopting unhealthy habits

If your child is too skinny and not eating enough, avoid saying, “Wow, you’re so thin. Why aren’t you eating?”

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Focus on talking about nutritional balance, physical activity and healthy lifestyles with your teens. This will often prompt them to start talking about any doubts they may have with their bodies.

The point is to show care and concern, Holland told TODAY.

Educate yourself from credible sources to distinguish between eating disorder facts and myths. Talk openly about your concerns with your teen. Instead of saying “thin” or “skinny,” use words like “healthy,” “beautiful,” “athletic” and “fit.” If the problem is serious, loop in a pediatrician and mental health professional.

3. DON’T: Associate health with weight loss or weight gain

“What we see is that fat and thin are now not just about weight and size, but instead they are reflectors of character. It’s a misperception,” says Robyn Silverman, body image expert and author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls.

In our society, “thin” is often associated with being beautiful, successful and smart, and “fat” is equated with negative qualities.

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Make it clear to your teen that size and weight do not necessarily indicate how healthy you are. If you are eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep and dealing with stress in productive ways, typically your body’s weight will fall where it’s supposed to be, Silverman told TODAY.

“It may be a size 2, and it may be a size 14. It just depends on your body and if you’re doing those things that really help to define your health.”

4. DON’T: Only compliment your teens on their physical appearance

Decrease the amount of focus on external appearance because it’s superficial and unnecessary, according to Sarah Maria, body image expert and author of Love Your Body, Love Your Life. It can distract the teen from recognizing their other positive attributes.

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Praise your teen's qualities that extend beyond their bodies, such as their intelligence or humor.

“The fact that [my parents] never critiqued or even commented on my body and always emphasized and praised me for my abilities — like good grades or other substantive achievements — was hugely helpful,” Zeilinger says.

Or take it from Maya Van Wagenen, teenage author of Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, who learned her shape had nothing to do with who she was after following the advice from a 1950s guide on how to be popular.

“As I learned that the true definition of popularity is not as much about how you look but the person that you are, I paid less attention to the things that I felt were ‘wrong’ with my body,” she told TODAY in an email. “I was able to laugh at my lopsided breasts, because for the first time, I didn’t feel as self-conscious.”

She encourages parents to show their teens — instead of lecturing them — the most important thing about their bodies is what they choose to do with them, not how they look.

Saying “I wish I’d appreciated my looks more when I was your age” will not have much of an effect. Instead, compliment them on being kind and inspiring rather than on their external appearance — which changes with time, she suggests.

5. DON’T: Compare your teen to other teens

Teens do not need their parents to point out the qualities of their peers — they are already well aware of them.

“In high school, you’re always comparing yourself. You’re always looking at other girls, whether it’s what they look like or whether they have boyfriends,” Alexa Curtis, a 16-year-old model and blogger, told TODAY.

Being compared to other teens makes you feel more insecure, which is the worst feeling for a young adult, she says.

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Sit down with your teens and tell them how important it is to focus on themselves and not on what other teens look like.

As a model since age 14, Curtis is used to being constantly critiqued and emphasizes how critical it is to not rely on other people to make her happy but to concentrate on her own passions instead.

6. DON’T: Assume teen boys don’t care about body image

Though your boys may not be directly asking you if they have a six-pack or big enough biceps, boys care about their appearance, too.

“We are seeing an increase in our boys and young men being more obsessed with body image and engaging in behaviors that are unhealthy,” Holland told TODAY.

Like girls, boys may experience anorexia, but they also are facing “bigorexia.” These teens want to bulk up and may resort to anabolic steroids to gain muscle.

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Recognize your son may be facing these issues and create an environment in which it’s ok for him to discuss those issues with you. Draw his attention to healthy exercise, being fit and not abusing the body.

7. DON’T: Be oblivious to how social media may affect your teen’s body image

Sure, you may not be on Instagram or Twitter. But don’t underestimate how social media may be affecting your teens’ confidence.

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Realize that teens are influenced by social media as much as they are by television and movies. The difference? Social media is less filtered.

“There’s this very raw openness and very raw honesty in social media that can be very influential to the person that is looking for themselves,” says Holland.

Curtis has noticed that girls often post on Twitter how they ate too much or need to work out. And she even admits to posting cute photos of herself on Instagram or Facebook to get a guy’s attention. But she’s also seen ways social media has had a positive effect on teens.

“There’s a ton of other supermodels that have used social media in a really positive light to really vouch for loving yourself and that beauty comes from the inside versus the outside,” she said.

8. DON’T: Talk about how perfect and gorgeous celebrities are

“From a very young age, it’s natural to look at people in Hollywood and movies, TV and magazines that perpetuate this vision of what’s considered beautiful,” says Maria. These images only show “what’s popular and trendy and not what’s really beautiful.”

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Teens need to understand the images in media are not realistic, and nobody can achieve these looks naturally. Once they get how the media may be duping them to feel a certain way, teens are likely to push back and not be fooled, Silverman said.

Make sure your teen is exposed to images of people of all different ages, cultures and ethnicities, says Maria.

“Each person is unique and uniquely beautiful. The only question is, are your eyes open to see it or not?” 

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