How to help your son or daughter have a more positive body image.
By Brooks Morse, Ph.D., and Sue Orchard, Psy.D.
“I look fat in these jeans.” “I can’t eat that because I’m on a diet.” “I wish I were thinner.” Parents, how many times have you heard your student say something like this? Body image concerns are rampant in this society, particularly for college aged students. While such statements may not indicate that your student has an eating disorder, it may be a sign of disordered eating and negative body image issues. Disordered eating is a common and widespread problem, which involves unhealthy eating behaviors such as restricting food intake, bingeing or purging on a less frequent and/or severe basis than an eating disorder. (Office of Women’s Health-U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).
Closely related to disordered eating is an unhealthy body image. Body image is how we see and feel about ourselves when we look in the mirror or picture ourselves in our minds. It is sensitive to mood, environment, and physical experiences, and very much influenced by our self-esteem and the media. Our body image is learned from and reinforced by families, peers, and culture.
Negative body image involves a distorted perception of our shape, a conviction that only other people are attractive, and feelings of shame and self-consciousness about our bodies. A positive body image allows us to see our bodies as they really are, an appreciation of our natural body shape, and an understanding that our physical appearance says very little about our character or value as a person. It also involves feeling proud, and accepting the uniqueness of our bodies.
Consider some of these important facts taken from the research literatures:
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
- Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet.
- 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, 22% dieted “often” or “always”.
- 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
- Excessive dieting can lead to irritability, depression, withdrawal and sexual disinterest
How Parents Can Help!
As parents, it is important that we are aware of our own thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors towards our bodies and the messages we convey to our students about theirs. We can then identify and change conditions that promote the Three-Ds: body dissatisfaction, dieting, and drive for thinness. Cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance, the glorification of thinness, and a narrowly defined concept of beauty have helped to create a culture in which millions of individuals spend their lives obsessed with food rather than with living. A healthy body image is determined by much more than the number on the scale. Instead of trying to change one's body size/shape to generate positive feelings and respect, we recommend students (and parents) develop positive feelings and respect for their bodies’ first and good health will follow.
Eight Ways We Can Help Our Children to Overcome Negative Body Image (Adapted from Edreferral.com):
- Fight "Sizism": Learning to accept people of all sizes will help increase appreciation of our own body.
- Fight the Diet Downfall: Dieting only helps you lose your self-esteem and energy.
- Accept Genetics: While there are many aspects of our bodies we cannot change, we can change or modify our beliefs and attitudes, which influence the way we feel about ourselves. It is import to focus on health and not size.
- Understand that Emotions are Skin Deep: It is important to discover the emotions and feelings that underlie our negative body image.
- Question Messages Portrayed in the Media: It is important to start to question images in the media and question why women should feel compelled to "live up" to these unrealistic standards of beauty and thinness.
- Befriend Your Body: Learn to accept and love your body just the way it is.
- Decide how you wish to spend your energy -- pursuing the "perfect body" or enjoying family, friends, school and, most importantly, life.
- Know that Anybody can develop Disordered Eating: It is a myth that only Euro-American heterosexual wealthy young women are vulnerable to disordered eating. All cultural groups (women of color; men; gay, lesbian, and bisexual students; all socioeconomic levels) are all vulnerable to disordered eating.
The Counseling Center frequently works with students coping with body image and eating concerns. Students can access our services by dropping into our center between 1-3 p.m., Monday through Friday, http://www.uoregon.edu/~counsel/, or calling 346-3227. If you are worried about your U.O. student, you may call us as well to consult. The National Eating Disorders Association (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) and the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center (www.edrefferal.com) also offer additional information.