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Sex, Gender, and Body Image

What is "thinspiration," and what should I know about it?

Pressure to live up to narrow beauty standards has contributed to a growing number of online communities dedicated to promoting unhealthy behavior. Thinspiration -- or "thinspo" -- websites feature photos, blog posts, diet and exercise instructions, and inspirational messages devoted to the pursuit of thinness. Also called "pro ana" (for pro-anorexia) sites, these communities draw kids who want to achieve the thin body ideal often praised in our culture. Clearly, they promote unhealthy ideals and activities, and kids should avoid them. It's not only teens who are affected; younger girls and boys are becoming more body-conscious, too.

Talk about the health consequences of eating disorders. Your kids may know of someone with anorexia or bulimia. Ask them about their reactions. Point out that these are illnesses, not defects, and that their friends need help. If your child has one of these disorders, it could be a life-threatening illness, and you should consult a medical professional immediately.

Don't bug kids about their weight -- emphasize health and fitness instead. Be an active family. Get your child up and moving by taking a walk, doing a sport, or taking a class at the gym together.

Set a good example. Don't speak critically about how you look when you're around your kids. Avoid saying that you've been "bad" for eating something or even calling certain foods "good" or "bad." Instead, model making healthy decisions and appreciating your body for all the wonderful things it can do.

Praise skills and talents. Make sure you're praising kids -- especially girls -- for the things they do, not their looks. Girls get a lot of attention for how they look, and it can make them focus more on their appearance than is healthy.

Watch out for signs of unhealthy eating. Fixating on appearance, dieting, and overeating all can be signs of a problem. Eating disorders are very serious and can even be life-threatening. The good news is that they're easier to treat the earlier they're caught, so make sure you know the signs, and don't be afraid to consult a medical professional if you're worried.

The Child Mind Institute contributed to this article. Learn more at childmind.org.