Creating Positive Self Image

By Anne Wilfong, R.D., L.D. – June 1, 2013

In our image conscious society, tweens and teens can often be heard making comments such as “I am so fat,” “My legs are huge,” “My stomach is sticking out,” or “I am going on a diet.” This same group of kids is learning to track calories and carbohydrates using smartphone apps, and there are pro-bulimia/anorexia websites popping up everywhere. This can be concerning to parents and, luckily, there is quite a bit we can do to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food and body image. Tweens and teens don’t necessarily like to feel and look any “different” from their peers and, since puberty happens at different ages, comparisons are bound to happen. Let’s look at some common situations and ways that you as a parent can help children face them while preserving a healthy relationship with food and their body.

1. You bake homemade chocolate chip cookies for your tween/teen and, when offered them, he or she tells you a friend said cookies were “bad” or “fattening” or “have too many carbs.”

If you have been reading this column for a while, you are probably keenly aware that I don’t believe food is good or bad, and that all foods can fit into a healthy, balanced diet if eaten in moderation. Ask your son or daughter to tell you what he or she thinks about eating a cookie. On the basis of that response, you can either agree with your child if he or she advocates for all foods in moderation or offer a gentle reminder that food isn’t good or bad.

Bottom Line Message: Encourage your tweens/teens to choose food according to how it makes them feel.

2. Your teen/tween says, “I feel SOOO fat.”

Fat is not a feeling. Similarly, you can’t feel if you have blue or brown eyes. Feelings are sadness, loneliness, happiness, and being tired, bored, stressed, annoyed, and so on. Help your child identify what he or she is really feeling and teach him or her to change the statement to reflect that feeling. For example: “I am feeling stressed and, therefore, I need some down time, such as talking with a friend.”

Bottom Line Message: Fat is not a feeling.

3. You find an app for counting calories/carbs on your tween’s/teen’s smartphone.

This is a great time to be curious. Ask your teen/tween what his or her goals are for using the app. Here is where you can educate your child on growth rates—in particular, how one’s own growth rate might differ from a friend’s—and how a certain amount of body fat (in addition to other things) is needed in order to go through puberty. Instead of counting calories, you can encourage your child to learn to pay attention to his or her appetite, eating when physically hungry and stopping when satisfied.

Bottom Line Message: All kids go through puberty at different times and will, therefore, grow up—and out—at different rates.

4. Your tween/teen is exercising to “burn off” calories already eaten (or anticipated).

Acknowledge that moderate exercise is important for a healthy body and lifestyle but over-exercising can lead to injuries and other health problems. Try praising your child for an attribute other than looks or fitness ability and find activities to do together that can take the place of some of the exercise.

Bottom Line Message: Exercise should be enjoyed and not feel like a punishment.

5. Your tween/teen says, “My thighs touch,” or “I don’t have a thigh gap.” 

Just about any body part could be substituted in the statements above. Generally, comments such as these are generated after your kid has compared his or her body to an image in a magazine that has been altered by Photoshop or against another individual with a completely different body type. Show your tween/teen the Dove video, which dramatically illustrates how a woman’s image is Photoshopped for an advertisement. It’s also important for your tween/teen to know that everyone has problems, regardless of body shape or size, and that no one’s life is “perfect” because of his or her body.

Bottom Line Message: Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes, and your tween/teen’s body shape is unique and beautiful all on its own.

I can’t emphasize enough how modeling a healthy relationship with food will impact your tween/teen. Your kids will notice and follow your behaviors, so choose a balanced diet without restricting, exercise gently, and avoid fad diets. Pay attention and notice if you make statements such as “I look fat in this” or “I can’t eat that because I am trying to lose a few pounds.” These comments may seem innocent enough to you but, over time, your tweens/teens will start to verbalize these same comments, and they can inadvertently hurt their own body image or relationship with food. It’s equally important to keep an eye on your tween/teen and seek help when some of the aforementioned situations seem excessive or compulsive to you. Resources in Austin include Austin Eating Disorder Specialists (, and you can find many other resources through the National Eating Disorder Association ( Growing up in our culture is hard enough for our kids; let’s work together to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Beauty–in the eye of the beholder? 

Body image isn’t just a teenage issue—all are affected by media portrayals of beauty. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has produced videos that demonstrate the extent to which models’ images are altered to fit a certain beauty ideal. The Evolution of Beauty is a striking depiction of such alterations. Watch a video of the transformation here.

Dove recently released a video of women describing themselves to a sketch artist, who produced an image based on their words. Then, another person described the same women to the sketch artist, who produced a second image. The difference between the two drawings in perceived “beauty” was poignant. Watch the video of the sketches here.

Many have praised this video as an affirmation for women (they are more beautiful than they think); others have criticized the video’s lack of diversity (in color, size, and shape of the participants) as well as its overarching emphasis on beauty rather than on other personal qualities.


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