How do I protect my kid's body image?
Let's dig into a very important topic: body image. You've probably already noticed the influence of YouTube, TV, and movies on the way your kid wants to dress, act, and even play. If your kid's on social media, you may see them measuring themselves against others or calculating their "likes." But despite being fed a steady diet of idealized images, kids also get a lot of their body-image messages from you. In fact, parents—especially moms—can make a huge difference in how both boys and girls feel about their bodies.
What do we know about how media affects kids?
While the impact of traditional media such as TV and magazines on body image is well documented, studies on the impact of digital media is still trickling in. Here's what our research—released in 2015—shows:
Television, movies, and traditional advertising can make kids feel bad about themselves. They contain unrealistic, idealized, sexualized, and stereotypical portrayals of body types—and kids sometimes want to emulate what they see.
Social media can trigger a negative thought cycle. The comparison that happens when kids judge themselves against others—especially friends they think are more attractive—can cause kids to spin out on self-loathing.
Digital media is a megaphone for unrealistic images. A magazine or TV show may have a few images of buff bods, but Pinterest and Instagram have millions. And kids can scroll through them any time of day or night—or all the time.
Images are getting even more ridiculous. Whether it's online, in the movies, on Netflix, or in ads, bodies are even more idealized than ever (skinny girls with big boobs or butts, and six-pack abs for guys).
We don't know enough about how media affects the self-image of certain populations. Young kids, boys, kids of color, and LGBTQ youth are all under-studied, so we don't have a good sense of how traditional or digital media impacts their self-image.
What am I up against?
Oh, basically our entire culture as a whole (no biggie!). But seriously, right now, our culture is extremely skewed toward outward appearance and external validation. In fact, doctors have identified a new phenomenon highlighting this hall-of-mirrors effect: Snapchat dysmorphia, where plastic surgery patients bring in pics edited with app filters, asking to look more like their photos. Even the most enlightened kid can be susceptible to body image messages they find online, including:
Unhealthy sites to obsess over the body. Fitspo (short for "fit inspiration") is a category of online content that purports to be about a healthy lifestyle, but mostly glorifies super-skinny or outrageously buff bodies. "Pro-ana" sites promote the disordered eating, skeletal aesthetic, and dangerous weight loss of anorexia.
Influencers hawking diet methods. The internet is full of celebs and social media influencers who are sponsored by diet product companies pushing risky weight loss methods like diet teas and even steroids. (In fact, Instagram recently said it would restrict posts promoting these too-good-to-be-true products.)
Online challenges. Every so often, image-oriented contests like the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge go viral, with kids using dangerous methods like eyeliner glue and sucking air out of a shot glass to plump their lips.
With all this scary stuff out there, what can I do?
You're up against a lot, it's true. But studies prove that moms' messages about body appreciation go a long way toward influencing kids to accept themselves as they are and, importantly, counteracting all those other messages from media and culture. Dads of course have a lot of influence on kids' self-perception, too—it's just that research has focused on mothers.
And, though we have a long way to go, there are some flickers of change happening. Artists and entertainers such as Billie Eilish, Jameela Jamil, and Zendaya are using their platforms to advocate for positive body image. Beauty and clothing brands from Dove to H&M are pledging not to airbrush their photos. And models such as Ashley Graham, Winnie Harlowe, and Jillian Mercado are proving that skin color, size, and physical ability don't define beauty. Here's what you can do and say to help make sure your kid feels secure in their own skin and, by the way, begins to view every body as beautiful and valuable to society:
Hold off on social media as long as possible. Kids—especially younger ones—tend to imitate what they see on social media before they really understand what they're doing and what messages they're sending. Keeping those images at bay prolongs the amount of time kids have to develop their own sense of self.
Help kids view media critically. Together, analyze messages about attractiveness on TV, in ads, in games, and online. At the grocery store, point out photos that look too good to be true on the magazine covers.
Emphasize what your body can do, not what it looks like. Say, "Your long legs help you run fast!"
Don't criticize your own body. Listen, we grew up in this culture, too, so it's hard not to reflect that. But work toward self-acceptance and remember that your kids pick up on even the littlest thing, like the defeated sigh when you can't button your jeans.
Stress internal strength vs. external validation. You can model this: Discuss how a "like" on your photo might give you a mood boost, but you feel even better when you do something nice for a friend.
Seek out nontraditional and diverse content. Try kids' shows from other countries available on streaming; they tend to have more natural-looking characters—i.e., moms who don't look like teenagers. Look for characters in books, on TV, and in movies who defy the Barbie aesthetic.
Look for positive, diverse role models. Reject the idea that there's only one standard of beauty. It's not wrong to want to look attractive, but encourage kids to find what they think looks great, not conform to an ideal.
You can do everything "right," and …
A lot of parents take it hard when their kids remain stubbornly focused on appearance, despite all their best efforts to convince them looks don't matter. But it is developmentally appropriate for kids to be a little obsessed with how their bodies look. Also, some kids are just more sensitive to body image messages and anxious about their bodies. And some kids are more vulnerable at certain times of their lives, such as when they're physically developing, changing schools, or in the spotlight on a sports team or in a play. Just try to stay on message.
But if you sense your kid is overly concerned about body image to the point where they may be dieting, overexercising, compulsively looking at social media, taking unsafe supplements, or engaging in any other destructive behavior, you may have a more serious problem on your hands than typical adolescent insecurity. Be on the lookout for signs of distress (secretive behavior, changes in how they act, slipping grades, etc.), and make an appointment with your pediatrician, who can recommend a counselor if necessary.