My teen thinks she's fat

Of all the damage that fad diets have incurred, none has been more glaring than the destruction of the positive body image of teenage girls. They are exposed to both their mother’s obsession with fat and Hollywood’s obsession with skinny, neither of which have served them well.

The reality is that we have always admired and wanted to look like the rich and the famous. After all, they are gorgeous, rich and, gosh, they seem happy. What more could a woman want?

It wasn’t until the 80’s that looking like a movie star required S2, also known as starvation/surgery. Before the 80’s, looking like Liza Minelli or Marilyn Monroe simply meant a change in hair colour or makeup, all easily remedied once the fascination wore off. But today it’s so much different. The stars or famous women of today are ultra-thin and seemingly perfect; sparkling white teeth, perky breasts, hoisted derriere and liposuctioned. How can a teenager possibly compete with this illusion?

According to Marla Richmond, author, physiologist and eating disorder expert, "There is a return to almost a skeletal look. Fashion magazines airbrush already unnaturally thin models and our teenage girls continue to feel less than adequate. A very typical response is, 'How come I don’t look like that? Why am I so fat?'"

The real difficulty comes with the mixed messages our daughters receive. In one advertisemenr, fast food is consumed by "cool," good-looking kids. In another ad they show excessively thin young women wearing the latest styles in fashion (who couldn’t have possible eaten much, if any, of the fast food). So what’s the message? Eat fast food, stay thin and be popular. How can we raise our girls (and yes even our boys) to focus on healthy living without making it un-cool?

How can we help our teens understand that excessive thinness is either in the genes or is typically attained in unhealthy ways? Expert Richmond says, "Girls need to feel that they have control over their body, but in a healthy way. It’s our job as parents and teachers first and foremost to model healthy and balanced nutrition and physically active lifestyle habits. We must also help them understand what they can and cannot control, help them develop a positive attitude about their bodies. We need to empower them through possibilities, not illusions presented by the media."

Just as we have raised our girls to stand up for their equality, we must teach them to respect and care for their bodies. It otherwise will haunt them for life, much like it has haunted many of us baby boomers.

I know what you’re thinking - once our kids reach the teen years, what we say means little to nothing, right? So what do we do? Again, lead by example - be a great role model. While you’re at it, be tenacious with your pursuit of rearing a daughter (or son) that feels great about her body. Both adult and teen magazines continue to use the latest anorexic on their cover.

As adults, we realise that we can feel sexy and attractive without looking like one of those models. We also know we’ll never look like the image they are projecting. Our kids, on the other hand, do not. They see those magazines and think those bodies are ideal, acceptable images of "beauty," while we might guess that these models are paid gazillions of dollars to likely eat next to nothing. Unfortunately, that’s a reality our kids aren’t willing to buy into.

Our kids are being socialised to want something that isn’t realistic or necessarily healthy. I say "necessarily healthy" because being fit doesn’t necessarily result in "thinness." Fit comes in many different shapes and sizes. But we’ve got to believe that before our kids will believe it.

More often than not, teens will use dramatic and dangerous tactics in order to be thin. Many of them are taking drastic measures. There is a plethora of pills available on the internet that are easily accessible to those kids who are seeking to emulate the latest ultra-thin model, not to mention those pro-anorexic and pro-bulimic websites. It’s going on all around us; beginning as early in some girls as 9 years old!

I never thought of myself as overweight when I was a teen until secondary school. And then one day, I was walking down the hallway and some guy yelled out, "Hey Nellie." I was mortified, the veil came off and I discovered I wasn’t the norm and didn’t fit in. At that moment I began my rollercoaster ride of diets, bingeing and starving myself in an effort to gain what was rightfully mine, a perfect body. The same scenario holds true for our kids, they want to fit in, to be attractive to the opposite sex, and they will go to great lengths to achieve it.

Ms. Richmond notes, "Women are socialised to be attractive to the opposite sex. Men, on the other hand, are bombarded with media women who depict an image of perfection. As a result they seek the same in their partners. Girls spend way too much time trying to please the male expectation of the "perfect" girl, often at the expense of developing a strong sense of self and confidence in who they are. This illusion is as unhealthy for our girls as it is our boys."

The combination of peer pressure and the latest cover girl presents a fantasy that, for many girls, is impossible to compete against. It’s important to note that it’s just as dangerous for our teens to be starving themselves as it is to be overeating and inactive. In either case, we need to educate our children about genetics and teach them to focus on their gifts, talents and unique design. We need to find ways to educate them about inclusive activity as well as realistic expectations of their body.

According to Marla Richmond, M.S., listed below are some red flags that may signal an eating disorder or unhealthy perceptions about their body.

• Does your child initiate excessive conversation about diets and fat?
• Does your child continue to ask questions about diets and nutrition that seem out of the norm?
• Does your child have a preoccupation with size, frequently making comments about how "fat" she is?
• Know what he or she is ordering off the internet. Kids will go to extreme measures to get things they think will melt off the weight or increase muscle size.
• Is your child drastically changing his/her dietary habits? (Becoming a vegetarian is a popular way your teen can avoid eating without seeming too obvious)?
• Do you notice unusual behaviour in order to avoid eating meals?

Along with the warning signs, there are also things we can do as teachers, parents and mentors to combat their fixation with perfection and unhealthy alternatives.

• As a woman, talk about your body with pride. Don’t say things like, "I’m so fat, I need to lose weight, I wish I looked like… etc."
• Set health and fitness goals that can include your child. Sign up for a community walking event or work together to train for a triathlon. What may seem impossible can be a wonderful journey during which both of you may learn new things about your body’s abilities and as well as each other.
• Keep healthy food in your house and encourage involvement in meal preparation.
• Talk about the importance of fuelling your body with "high octane" versus "low octane" (junk food).
• Teach your children to respect their bodies and not use them as a tool for acceptance. Respect of one’s self comes from confidence, and we need to do all we can to promote confidence within our children.
• Join a health club or take a martial arts class together.
• Teach your child that being physically active doesn’t mean you have to be competitive or involved in structured sports. Setting personal goals and achieving them can be very rewarding and empowering for your child.

Talk to your child, but more importantly, listen to your child.

Children ask questions to get answers that make sense to them. There are books available that parents or teens can read in order to learn more about their bodies and how they work. Knowing how the body functions helps teens make sense of what might be dangerous versus what constitutes habits for healthy living. Additionally, this information can empower them, as well as get them on the road to healthy habits.

Here is some suggested reading:

Diet (Teen Issues) by Joanna Watson and Joanna Kedge
Fitness Training For Girls by Katrina Gaede
Teen's Guide to Going Vegetarian by T. Colin Campbell and Judy Krizmanic
Promoting Teen Health by Sally Champlin
Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder by James E. Lock and Daniel Le Grange

It seems the bigger our kids get, the bigger their problems. As parents and teachers, we do the best we can to give our kids more and better than what we had. However, we are currently faced with issues that our parents didn’t have to deal with; so we feel ill-equipped. My suggestion is to seek help when you need it and know that your efforts to keep your child healthy will not be an exercise in futility. And don’t expect a thank-you until they have kids of their own!

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