Growing up as a fat teenager, I often felt like people didn’t want to see me. I thought society reserved happiness and opportunities for thin, perfect people. I rarely saw myself or my feelings represented in books or movies, and this fact inspired me to write my debut novel, Fat Girl on a Plane. I desperately wanted to create a character who’d been on a journey similar to mine.
As someone who is now a fat adult woman, I’ve been thrilled to see the body-positive movement gain momentum. But much of this movement is geared toward helping adults who have experienced significant fatphobia and fat-shaming recover their sense of dignity and self-worth.
For teenagers, I think a real opportunity exists to intervene early and help a new generation avoid many of these painful experiences. After I finished my book, I thought a lot about my relationship with my own teen daughter. I had created a body-positive character, but what could I do to help my teen daughter feel that way in real life?
Here are the top strategies I’ve learned for how we can all raise a generation of body-positive teens.
Praise their achievements & efforts
A Facebook friend recently posted a few pics of her new baby, and I quickly commented, “What a beautiful girl” — and immediately regretted it. The baby was beautiful, but that moment made me think about how often our impulses are to praise a young person for the way they look. The bedrock of our kids’ — of our — self-esteem should not be appearance. Instead, we should try to instill in our kids a sense of self-worth that’s derived from their great personality qualities and abilities.
Studies have found that when parents praise efforts more than innate characteristics like beauty or intelligence, children are more perseverant and better problem solvers. So, it’s important to note what your teen does well. Do they always get their homework done on time? Do they help out with their younger siblings? Are they MVP of their school’s volleyball team? Praise their hard work, their helpfulness and their commitment to success more than their appearance.
Educate yourself & discourage unhealthy behavior
Most of us who are parents of teens came of age being fed a lot of confusing, misleading and even false information by the diet industry. From raspberry ketones to the soup diet to celebrities on juice cleanses, today’s teens are bombarded on social media with weight-loss messages that are likely not be in the best interest of their health. Emerging science is finding that fad diets may be worse for long-term health than carrying a few extra pounds, which makes it more important than ever for parents to become informed. In our household, we’ve decided that making simple healthy changes is the best. We discourage our teen daughter from skipping meals in hopes of cutting calories; instead, we encourage her to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables, cut back on sugar, and try to be active as a family.
Give teens a voice in important discussions
Last year, I discovered that my daughter had been skipping lunch at school. While I was heartbroken to learn that she was struggling with body-image issues, the situation did lead to a lot of productive discussions in our household. Not only did we discuss the importance of complete and balanced nutrition (and calories!), but I also worked with my daughter to come up with a list of healthy foods that she actually enjoys eating. She became more active in packing her own lunch and expressed interest in cooking. She researched her own healthy recipes. Now, a few times a month, my daughter makes a healthy, delicious dinner for our whole family. (Her coconut curry chicken is delicious.)
Take advantage of available resources
I still struggle with my own body issues, and even after those candid conversations with my daughter, I wasn’t entirely convinced I was the very best person for her to talk to on this subject. We’re fortunate in that our health insurance does cover counseling services, so I booked a few sessions for my daughter. It was incredibly helpful for her to have a supportive but neutral party to listen to her concerns. Also, the fact that many of the ideas we adopted came from a mental health professional gave me a lot of reassurance as a parent. If you find your teen is having body-image issues (dealing with fat-shaming or fatphobia or struggling with self-esteem) and you have the ability to get counseling services, I strongly recommend it.
Encourage teens to be sensitive and inclusive
One of the most difficult aspects of raising a body-positive teen is that the world at large is often far from body-positive. It’s important to speak with teens about being welcoming to people of different body types, and this involves being appropriately sensitive. Most teens know to avoid fat jokes and the like, but sometimes even otherwise kind teenagers will make offhand hurtful comments. I once overheard a teen shopper at the mall tell her plus-size friend, “That shirt would look cute on you, but we’ll never find it in your size.” As someone who was a fat teenager, I know these comments stick with us.
On the other hand, when a teen connects with a group of supportive peers, the results can be so powerful. When my daughter wanted to become more active, she joined an athletic team at her school. Considering that she’s inherited my lack of coordination, it was a brave decision. She initially struggled because she was often the last to finish some of the daily drills. But the other girls on the team encouraged her to stick with it. A few weeks in, after my daughter had worked hard to improve her performance, they voted her student athlete of the week. My daughter was so proud of the award, and I was so impressed by her teammates for all they did to create a welcoming environment.
It’s important to discuss with teens what’s not okay to do or say in terms of body-related speech and comments, but it’s also crucial to emphasize the positive difference they can effect on someone else’s self-esteem, simply through their own inclusive and body-positive attitude.
Set a good example
Because children and teens often mirror what they see at home, the key to raising a body-positive teen is to truly be body-positive yourself. Do you make critical remarks about your own body? Do you voice negative or judgmental thoughts about the bodies of other people? Pop culture and the media can make it easy to assume this kind of behavior is normal and fall into it unaware.
If you’re experiencing negative emotions about your own body, try to practice self-care and find a sounding board for these thoughts — other than your teen. If you find yourself making critical comments about others, consider whether you’d want your teen repeating those comments to a schoolmate or friend. Change your own outlook and speech for the better, and you’re modeling the best body-positive behavior for your teen.
Today’s parents have a real opportunity to shape a future that’s free of fatphobia and fat-shaming for generations to come. Raising body-positive kids will help create a world that’s better for all of us, regardless of our shape or size.
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