Help create a positive body image

Puberty is a tumultuous time in a child’s life: the first giant step into the unknown world of adulthood. This causes joy, excitement and insecurities and fears. During puberty the body changes and some children might worry about what others will say about their changing body. In addition, sexual characteristics make their appearance, as hormones trigger breast development, pubic hair growth, and a host of other changes including mood swings.

To help your teenager through this exhilarating but also frightening time, it’s important to begin by understanding normal pubertal changes. As children’s bodies undergo these changes, they also develop a new image of their own sexuality and attractiveness. In addition, as they add weight and round out, their casual relationship with food and eating becomes more complex.

Children who navigate these changes successfully can mature into confident, healthy individuals who value their own bodies and are in control of their eating. Those who fall prey to societal pressures or destructive dieting during their teen years, however, are targets for eating disorders or lifelong obesity. That’s why parents need play an active role in understanding their children’s changing bodies and feelings during puberty and adolescence, and promoting a positive body image and a healthy relationship with food and eating.

Why does puberty trigger body issues?

The onset of normal puberty changes often leads to insecurity and negative body image in formerly confident, self-assured children. Read the example below:

"Micheal was a chubby kid and the people in his class noticed that he was heavier than most of them. At lunch, they called him names. He was also taller than most people in his class. He had pubic hair whilst the boys in his class had nothing. He felt ashamed of himself. When he started dieting he never would have thought he would end up getting Anorexia."


Just like their children, parents too may react to normal pubertal changes with concern, thus “pathologizing” these changes. For example, the parents of the children described above reacted in the typical way: by putting them on diets. All three sets of parents followed diet plans recommended by their children’s doctors. Latisha’s mother also hired a personal trainer and purchased low-calorie frozen dinners for her, and Miguel’s mom paid him $5 for each pound he lost. Katie’s stepmom spent hours in the kitchen trying to create low-fat, low-calorie versions of Katie’s favorite foods.

One year later, Katie was in the early stages of bulimia. Latisha was self-conscious and was starting to sneak food into her room, and Miguel continued to gain weight with each passing month and ate compulsively while playing video games.

What happened to these children? The answer to this question involves two modern-day culprits: fat phobia, and the harmful dieting that it generates. Understanding the toxic effects of both fat phobia and dieting can help you give your child the tools she needs to traverse normal development safely while maintaining a healthy self-esteem and relationship with her body.

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