Would you rather talk to your teen daughter about her sex life or her weight? If you chose the former, you’re not alone: a study by WebMD showed that nearly 22% of parents are uncomfortable discussing the dangers of being overweight with their kids, compared to only 12% of parents who feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their teenager.
This study jives with my experience. As a college professor who teaches courses and leads workshops focused on issues of both sexuality and body image – and for many years, as a high school church youth leader – it’s astounding to see how differently young people react to these two topics. While talking about sex can certainly be awkward, even in an academic setting, the discomfort often turns quickly to laughter and warm, safe humor. Teens are generally hungry for accurate information about sex and eager for a non-judgmental environment in which to ask questions and share stories.
But that’s not the case with the issues surrounding weight and body image. When that topic is on the agenda, there’s far less giggling, far less fun. If the workshop leader isn’t careful, the atmosphere can turn grim fast. The pain can come to the surface desperately quickly. In my professional experience, there is NOTHING more difficult to talk about than weight and body image. If that’s true for therapists and youth leaders and educators, it’s clearly also true for parents.
There are many reasons why it can be so hard to talk about body image and weight. For one thing, it seems much more personal than talking about sex and drugs. Most of us think about sex as something you do with yourself or another person. It’s a temporary action. But our bodies define us; three generations of Americans have come of age hearing “you are what you eat.” Issues around weight are thus much more painful, much more intimate.
It’s vital that parents engage their kids about weight and self-esteem. But it’s also essential that moms and dads check their own issues first. While peer culture and the fashion industry shapes young people’s self-image, parents also play a part. Little girls who grow up hearing that Mommy is always on a diet – or even worse, who grow up hearing their father make disparaging remarks about “fat” women – are at much greater risk of developing an eating disorder.
Many parents are circumspect in what they reveal about their own sex lives to their children. But many of those same parents reveal all too clearly how uncomfortable they are with their own body image.
One helpful tool is to examine the media with your kids. Flip through Vogue with them; watch the shows they watch (be it iCarly or Jersey Shore), ask them for examples of what they consider the ideal. It’s always easier to start by talking about other people’s bodies, even if your teen compares herself ruthlessly to a celebrity ideal. It’s okay to share your own story of how you felt when you were younger – kids don’t want to hear about your sex life, but if you longed to look like Cheryl Tiegs when you were 16, that tidbit will be of real interest to most daughters. Google some pictures together, it’ll be a fun way to lighten the mood.
It’s important to set a good example around food and exercise, of course, as the folks at Web MD recommend. But that example will resonate much more powerfully if your teen knows you’re willing to push through the awkwardness to engage with her (or him).
Will it be uncomfortable? Probably. But is it important to start? Absolutely.