In Depth with parenting expert Justin Coulson
The teenage years can be fun and exciting but they’re also a period when we’re particularly vulnerable to body image concerns. Young people are developmentally inclined to compare themselves to others, but this developmental drive is intensified by external influences, including the constant presence of social media that showcases unrealistic body ideals.
Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia’s most trusted parenting experts and the host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance. He says developing body acceptance can help teens to build self-esteem and self-confidence. In addition, a positive body image can lead to improved mental and physical health later in life.
Dr. Coulson says there are ways parents and carers can support young people’s growth in this area. He sat down to share his ideas with Sam Ikin for this episode of Let’s Talk In Depth. As the father of six daughters, he also has some experience.
Sam Ikin 00:09
Being a parent is a minefield at the best of times. But what do you do if your child starts to show signs of negative body image or even disordered eating? Nobody ever gave us a manual for our children. So in many cases, we’re just making it up as we go. And that’s why this week’s guest for Let’s Talk In Depth is in such hot demand.
Justin Coulson 00:29
My name is Dr. Justin Coulson. I’m the author of six books about raising happy families and have a PhD in psychology. My wife and I are the parents of six daughters aged from around grade one up to – well the eldest has moved out and gotten married. And my currency is helping families to be happier.
Sam Ikin 00:47
And if that voice sounds familiar, Justin is also the co-host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance. That’s a show that you’ll find, probably, inside your television.
Justin Coulson 00:56
Research from around the world tells us that from around the age of five, our girls in particular are concerned about their bodies. I want to share with you some data from the World Health Organisation. This is a survey of 42 different countries, 200,000 people, and in every country surveyed girls at age 15 were more likely to be more likely than boys to report that they were fat. This is despite the fact that the boys were actually more likely to be overweight. In other words, gender predicts who’s going to feel fat much better than predicts who will actually be fat. Now, these are measurements that are taken on BMI (Body Mass Index) and there are some other issues that we’ve got to consider around here.
I’ve got a book that I just absolutely treasure, it’s so well written. It’s called Beauty Sick by Dr Rene Engeln. And Renee says this in her introductory remarks about kids: She says girls start thinking about their ideal body at a shockingly early age. 34% of five-year-old girls, I’ll just say that again for emphasis, 34% of five-year-old girls, engage in deliberate dietary restraint, at least sometimes. 28% of these girls, – so we’re talking about more than a quarter of our five-year-olds – say they want their bodies to look like the women they see in movies and on TV.
So to put this into context, when you’re a five-year-old, the important developmental milestones that you’re supposed to be figuring out include how to tie up your shoelaces, how to count to 10, maybe 20 if your advanced and how to use your fork and knife at the table properly. So this stuff starts early. And why well, I mean, so many books have been written. And so many people have thought about this and ultimately, we’ve got a society that says, absolutely wrongly, that the value of a female human is predictable or predicted by her physical appearance. And it’s devastating.
I remember my little sisters, when they were four and five years old, used to run around the swimming pool. And because they were only four or five, they were just wearing their swimming suits, like a two piece, but they were only wearing the bottoms, they weren’t wearing the top because they were just four or five. So who cares. There’s nothing sexual about that, they’re just four years old. And they had these sticky-outy tummies. And that’s how I described it. They had these bellies that just stuck out and they didn’t care, we’ve got photos of them and video of them goofing off, and they’re completely oblivious to their stomachs. But as they get older, the judgement starts to seep in they’re not represented. The only thing that’s represented on television is this female body ideal. There’s a whole lot of different sizes and shapes of men, but the female body ideal is what’s represented on TV. The only time that it’s not, is usually for comic relief, or for some other kind of less than appealing reason. So we’ve got a media that is saturated in how women should look, we’ve got advertising, the shopping centres are full of it. The mannequins in the stores, you name it, everywhere you look, there is a sense that a female’s value as a human is inseparably connected to her physical appearance.
Sam Ikin 04:14
And that’s significantly reduced for males.
Justin Coulson 04:17
Yeah, it is. In fact, if we go back to the data that I was talking about a little bit earlier, boys care about how they look and it would be irresponsible, and immoral of me to say that they don’t. But the desire to be that hot is statistically primarily a women’s issue. One way that we can measure this and it may not be the perfect way. But one way that we can measure this is to look at who’s taking what we might call significant measures to “improve” and I’m using improving inverted commas to “improve their physical appearance”. And when we look at it on an international scale, around about just under 90% of cosmetic procedures are performed on women. 90%. And if, if you think about who’s most likely to have anorexia or bulimia, you’d probably say girls and women, and in 70% of cases, you would be right. And
I think we’ve got another really big challenge here as well. And that’s that the beauty ideal and body image issues actually work counter to healthy physical development. What I mean by that is, as boys enter puberty, their bodies naturally change in ways that align with society’s ideal, their shoulders get brought up, their muscle mass increases, like that’s just what happens when you’re a male. You become more ideally manly, and you’ve done nothing but stay alive. But if you’re a female, as you enter adolescence, you progress, your body develops in a way that is not consistent with the society, society-wide upheld view of beauty, that is your, if you’re a female, your hips widen, you gain weight around your thighs, which is normal and natural. In fact, I was speaking with a doctor just the other day, we were talking about this very topic. And she was explaining that this idea of a thigh gap is so unhealthy, guys don’t worry about their thigh gap. I’ve never heard of male ever mention the thigh gap. But for a woman, this thigh gap or for an adolescent girl, this thigh gap, what it actually does. The hormone in their body, primarily the oestrogen and progesterone is designed to put weight in those areas around the thigh and the hips, so that they can be more physiologically mature and prepared for child-rearing, It’s a sign of fertility. It’s a sign of health. And yet, as our girls reduce their thigh circumference as they try to create this thigh gap, what they actually do is they literally cause damage to their body, their organs are affected. Now I’m not a medical doctor so I’m going to stop there before I try to give too much detail and make a mistake. But what this medical doctor was saying to me is, it’s one of the most unhealthy things that we can be doing. And we live in a society that’s telling our girls that their normal natural development is not normal and natural. And they’re moving away from that ideal simply as they experienced natural development. I just think it’s such a terrible way for us to be viewing or for society to be perpetuating what health is when that’s not healthy at all.
Sam Ikin 07:32
We’re talking a lot here about the transition from childhood to adolescence, this is where a lot of what we’re talking about just now is starting to occur. And this is something so many parents talk about as just being an absolute struggle, and you know, you’ll talk to parents who are going through it, and now they’ll tear their hair out and say I just I don’t know what to do. How much influence do parents actually have? Because a lot of parents will put their hands up and say, look, I can say things and they won’t listen, they just do what they do. What should parents be doing?
Justin Coulson 07:59
So I think that influence is the top of the tree. And what we usually do as parents is we go for influence. First, we try to say, oh, you don’t need to worry about this, or why don’t you do that. One of my daughter’s friends was hanging out with our family the other day. And she made one of those glib comments, just this offhand remark. She said something about her weight. And I said to her, “Hey, that’s a pretty rough thing to say about yourself”. And she said, “Oh no, mum says it all the time”. And I said, “Well, what do you mean”? “Oh, mum, mum wants me to join the gym. She thinks I need to lose weight. She thinks that I’m carrying too much pudgy. I’m fat”.
She started calling herself all of these things in reference to her body. And I just gently said, “Oh, that’s such a shame that your mum feels that way about you. I think that you’re so much more than how you look. You’re a delight and we love having you here”. I tried to just let her know that we were grateful to have her around. But there’s this, this sense that parents perpetuate onto their kids that they’ve got to look a certain way that there’s this expectation. Almost like if you’re a female you owe the world a lithe and svelte body. So, so unhealthy. So, to bring this back to your question about connection. What happens when a parent says something like that to a child is that the child starts to feel shame. As shame increases, disconnection occurs. As disconnection occurs, unworthiness, accrues. And so when a child feels disconnected, shamed and unworthy, they’re less likely to take the influence of their parents. In other words, if I’m feeling lousy about myself, because my mum has just said that I’m fat and I need to join the gym, I’m probably not going to join the gym. What I’m probably going to do is I’m going to go and buy a packet of TV Snacks or a litre of Connoisseur ice cream, and I’m going to hide under the doona, watch Netflix and cry about how I’m not good enough in my parent’s eyes. And we’ve got decades of research that shows that if we want to have influence in our children’s lives, particularly when it comes to their weight, the last thing we should be doing is shaming them. Or pointing it out.
I was on national television with a particularly well-known breakfast broadcaster whose name will not be shared on this podcast. And we were talking about this topic. He said to me, “But surely, Justin, if you’ve got a kid who’s fat, surely you should let them know”.
Sam Ikin 10:19
As if they don’t know is that…
Justin Coulson 10:22
I said, “Believe me. She knows”.
Sam Ikin 10:26
That’s this idea that fat people need to be told they’re fat. As someone who’s been fat for like, you know, on and off for most of my life, it’s phenomenal. Everyone knows. Everywhere.
Justin Coulson 10:39
If they look in the mirror, they’ll know and making them feel shame only creates disconnection. Now, let’s finish the answer to the question that you’ve asked. Yes, disconnection. So Brene Brown, who is probably the world’s most popular, academic, yeah, Dare to Lead, Rising, Strong, all that sort of stuff. In her book Rising Strong, she defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel – and I wanted to say this exactly and precisely – seen, heard, and valued.
Now, if I’m a parent, and I make a comment like that to my child, let’s say that this girl was over the other day, let’s say she’s in her mid-teens. And I’m a caring parent who has the very best of intentions and say, I say, “Hey, sweetheart, have you noticed you’re a bit pudgy lately? You haven’t been moving your body much. You’re really starting to stack it on. I think that you should join the gym and start moving your body”. Does she feel seen, heard and valued in that moment? Does she think to herself, “Well, gee, I’m really glad my parents loved me so much, that they’re willing to point out all my flaws.” That’s not what she thinks. She thinks, “I’m invisible except when someone wants to point out my flaws. I don’t have a voice because of being trampled by my parents telling me what to do. And my value when my value is obviously intrinsically related to my physical appearance, my physical appearance is crap. So, therefore, what’s the point?”
And the research again highlights this. It is extraordinary to me, Sam, that kids who are between five and nine, who are given this kind of verbal diet from their parents, “Hey, you’re a bit overweight, hey, you need to lose weight, hey, you need to do this do that you, you’re putting on a lot”. I mean, come on, those kids that cast not just a shadow into the next few years, it casts a shadow throughout their lives. Every time I post about this on Facebook, Sam, my Facebook feed just goes bananas with parents, adults, females in the age in the age bracket of say, let’s say 30 to 50, who still has to live with the pain of that.
So if we want to have influence, we’ve got to get connection, right? We’ve got to help kids feel seen, heard and valued for who they are, they’ve got to be accepted. Because by the way, the opposite of acceptance is rejection. If you can’t accept me, even though I’m a little bit overweight, if you accept me, even though my body shape isn’t conforming to your ideal or society’s ideal, then that means you’re rejecting me, which means I’m unworthy. So we’ve got to get the connection, right, and accept them and love them for who they are, regardless of their physical appearance. Second, when we do that, they start to trust us, you think about the people that you have the most trusting relationships with the people who are most influential in your life, because influence follows trust, right? Yeah. Somebody that you truly deeply trust. They accept you for who you are. And because they accept you for who you are, ironically, they’re the most likely to change you. Why? Because you feel so accepted, you’re open to anything that they’ve got to say, but they don’t try to change you, because they accept you. But they have the greatest influence. So to go back to your question, how do we influence them? We build a relationship of trust based on pure beautiful connection. Seen, heard, valued. They feel seen, heard, valued, they trust you, they’re open to your influence.
Sam Ikin 14:03
That’s very easy for us to say. And you know, he parents who have been brought up by, you know, your boomer parents, who call a spade a spade and say, “Oh, you’re getting fat”. That’s how they were raised. That may well be the only way they know how to do it. What are some ways that we can change the picture, that we can change this dynamic? Are there some keywords or some ways that you would recommend that parents look at things a little bit differently?
Justin Coulson 14:35
I wrote a book called Miss Connection: Why your teenage daughter hates you, expects the world, and needs to talk. And the fourth chapter is called Pixel Perfect, which is all about this body image issue. And I’ll give a handful of strategies there. But before I share the strategies, maybe some context around this. I interviewed and spoke to and surveyed more than 400 Australian teenagers in focus groups, online surveys face to face, one on one zoom calls, whatever. And the number one question that came up again and again, or the number one issue that came up for them: Number one was friends, number two was usually body image in terms of the biggest worries in their lives, the things that they stress out about the most. They hate their bodies.
A couple of days before this conversation that we’re having right now, in a recording context. I was doing a webinar for 300 teenage girls at a school in Christchurch. And when I talked to them, I was asking the question, “What does it mean to be enough”? And the number one thing that they all highlighted was, they needed to look the right way because of this expectation. Now, I had one girl in my survey, when I said to her, “What’s the toughest thing about being a teenage girl? What’s the thing that worries you the most”? This is what she said. I’m sharing this context, because if we want to get this right, we need to understand the stakes. This girl said, and this is a direct quote. When I said, “What is the worst thing about being a teenage girl”? She said, “My face. If anyone is ever going to love me, despite how grotesque my face is.” And when I talk to these girls, I just imagine a 13-year-old waking up every day and looking at herself in the mirror, and thinking to herself, I can’t leave the house today, because of my face, I can’t smile, because of my face. I feel so unworthy as a human because of my face or because of my body or because of my physical appearance. And it crushes me. It’s so painful.
So when you ask the question, what are we supposed to do as parents? Let me give you a handful of really practical strategies. The first one, reduce screens. I watch the Instagram feeds of a whole lot of the adult women in the media that I’m connected with. I do a lot of TV and I do a lot of radio. And so, on Instagram, I follow a bunch of people who interview me or who I sit on the couch next to and have these conversations. And every image that I see that they post is followed by comment after comment after comment about how beautiful they are. People don’t actually comment on these television celebrities’ posts to talk about the content of the posts. All they do is talk about how beautiful they are. And the few adolescent girls that I am connected with, and I don’t really follow very many adolescent girls, for obvious reasons. I’m a middle-aged man and that would just be weird. But the few adolescent girls that I am connected with, it’s exactly the same trend. All the comments are about how good they look. The focus is entirely on appearance.
Social media sites are visual, they almost exclusively emphasise how we look. And I gotta be honest, I’ve had my social media account with 180,000 Facebook followers and 20 to 30,000 Instagram followers for years now and I don’t ever remember ever receiving a single comment from anybody about how I look. Nobody comments on what I’m wearing. Nobody mentions my physical appearance, nobody says, “Hey, looks like you’ve been going to the gym”. Or “Well, you haven’t been on the bike for a while.” Nobody says a word to me about my physical appearance, they only respond to the commentary that my social media posts are about.
By reducing our children’s access to screens and social media, a couple of things happen. Number one, they’re less likely to be exposed to the endless comments about appearance. And number two, they’re going to do something else with their body. Because you’re not sitting in front of a screen, you’re probably not going to keep on sitting on your bum, you’re gonna get up and move your body, which is what bodies were designed for. So that’s my first tip. Second one, I think that we’ve got to forget media literacy. You know, this conversation that everybody’s always having about, “Oh, we’ve just got to teach the kids about Photoshop, we’ve got to tell them that it was the makeup artists, and it was the lighting and it’s the clothing, the designer clothes”. Garbage. There’s no evidence to support it. When I look through the research literature, I see the opposite trend. The more people look at images critically, the more they focus on appearance. Let me say that again. And by the way, we see this with supermodels. The more they focus on appearance, the more they focus on appearance. Even if they’re looking at it critically and saying, “Oh they’ve done this and they’ve done that it doesn’t stop the kids aspiring for it.
Here’s my third tip. And this one is actually my favourite. Focus on what your body can do, not how it looks. So when I talk to kids in schools I just say to them, “What can your body do? Like let’s go through the list”. And then I rattle off a list of 50 or 60 things. Can it go rock climbing? Can it go 10 pin bowling? Can it hug someone? Can it squeeze somebody’s hand? Can your body… and I just keep it going and going going… Can it run five K’s? Can it jump in the pool? Can it slide down a slide? Can it jump onto a flying fox and go whizzing through the air, can your body do those things? Okay, so go and do those things. Can we ride a bike? Can we play volleyball? Can we play rugby? Whatever, I don’t care what it is, let’s stop worrying about how it looks and just focus on what it can do.
And if we can help it to keep on doing that stuff and do more of it and do more of it better, they’re going to be healthy. There was a team of researchers who asked women to write a letter to their body, to say thank you to it for what it can do. Like this is kind of a bit weird, right? I’m probably as a male not going to sit down and write my body a letter saying thank you. But this was a research project, and people were getting credit for their psychology course for doing it. So, they sat down, and they did it. And the researchers argued that what this did was it created a functional orientation to the body rather than an aesthetic one. And they discovered that the women who spoke more kindly about their bodies were more likely to take good care of them, instead of hurting them through either calorie restriction or negative self-talk.
So my advice, my third one is to focus on function not form. What your what your daughter’s body can do matters much more than how it looks. What that means is you don’t talk about how she looks. But you can say, “Hey, how long has it been, since you got up and moved your body”? Bodies are made for moving, we feel better when we move, less depression, less anxiety, less stress, less blah, we just feel better when we move our bodies. And that seems to be a healthier conversation. I know when I have that conversation with my daughters, they don’t get any kind of uptight feelings about calling them names. I’m not saying they’re fat. And by the way, I don’t actually make any judgement at all about what my children’s body weights are. I’ve got a couple of kids that are tremendously skinny, a couple that are in the middle, and one or two that are probably a little bit heavier than the quote-unquote, ideal. I don’t care. I care about whether they’re moving their body, and whether they’re happy in their body.
The last one that I mention is just be an example. Like for crying out loud. This sounds judgmental of me, I promise not to put shame on parents, although every now and again… There’s a difference between guilt and shame, right? Guilt is when you know you’ve done the wrong thing. And you want to change. Shame is when you feel like you’re not a good person. I don’t want anyone to feel shameful about this. But I hope that everyone who’s listening does feel just a little bit guilty if they’ve done this, because guilt should be a provocation to change. And hopefully, when I say this, people will feel just that smidge guilty so that they can make a shift. We’ve got to stop talking about how we look in front of the kids. We’ve got to stop making comments about appearance. “Oh, you look fantastic.” “You look beautiful.” “Wow, you’ve lost weight.” “I can’t believe that I can’t fit into those jeans anymore.” “I used to look so good in these and I must have put on 15 kilos over the winter, I’m going to have to hit the gym, I can’t believe it.” This is just so toxic and it’s what I hear in, I reckon, jeez, I’m not going to put a number on it. The majority of female conversations that I hear when women catch up, I hear it again and again and again. don’t really hear blokes talking about it so much. It doesn’t seem to be a guy thing. But Crikey. It’s pervasive in our female conversations and our daughters hear this.
Sam Ikin 23:05
And that’s different to saying your new haircut looks great, or is it? Sorry, is that different? If we’re talking about someone’s fashion choices or something like that? Is there a grey area there where you maybe just don’t say you look good?
Justin Coulson 23:19
Yeah, I guess it depends on how far you want to take it. Some people are going to be absolutely purist about this and other people not so much. I’m pretty pragmatic. So at one end, you’ve got people who just comment about appearance all the time, “Wow you look great, love the haircut, blah, blah, blah”. Or every now and again, somebody will say, “Gee, you’re looking healthy”, which is a funny one. It’s like, okay, so you’re saying that I’ve been eating too much like, where are you? Where are you going with this one, I’m looking healthy. Any kind of comment like that, I just don’t think that it’s necessarily helpful and it could be harmful.
At the other extreme, you’ve got the purist version, which is you don’t comment on appearance. Don’t mention the haircut, don’t mention the clothing, don’t mention anything. That’s a really big leap for somebody who’s never done any of this before and who hasn’t thought this through. So what I tend to say is just try to minimise your focus on appearance, talk about other things. What have you been doing? How have you been feeling? How are the kids? What’s going on with work? What have you been reading lately? Like there are so many other things that we could ask, so many other things that we can engage on other than whether someone’s haircut looks great. Now, if the haircut looks great, I don’t think that you’re going to put them through purgatory for the next 15 years worrying about their physical appearance if you say, “Oh, gee, I love your haircut”. I mean, that’s, that’s my problem with the purist approach. Sometimes somebody looks great, and you feel compelled to let them know and they’re going to feel fantastic for it. So I don’t I don’t want to be a purist about it. What I do want to emphasise though is that the more we focus on physical appearance, the more people rely on it for a sense of value, and that’s where the damage is whether they’re grown-ups or little kids.
Sam Ikin 24:53
If we look at this through the prism of eating disorders, which obviously this is what the Butterfly Foundation is here for, if you’ve got so many kids developing this negative body image or an unhealthy body image at such a young age, it’s hardly surprising, that calls are spiking to Butterfly Foundation at the moment. And then we’re seeing so many people and not just women, but more and more boys who are developing these kinds of problems as well. Is there anything that you would like to finish on? Have you got any closing tips before we close this out?
Justin Coulson 25:25
I’m just gonna share a quote to wrap this up. My final advice comes from James Corden, the late night TV show host. In a viral video from his late night talk show, he said this, and I quote, “Instead of watching what goes into our daughter’s mouths, we need to watch what comes out of ours.”
Sam Ikin 25:47
And if you’re looking for support with eating disorders, or negative body image, the Butterfly helpline is there seven days a week from 8am until midnight, the number to call 1 800 334673. Or you can go online to butterfly.org.au. And you can totally chat online if you prefer to do that. If you like what we’re doing here with the Butterfly podcast: Let’s Talk and Butterfly In Depth bonus episodes, please leave us a rating or leave us a comment on Apple Podcasts. We’d really appreciate that. That helps us out greatly. And as always, if you think somebody could benefit from hearing these kinds of conversations, please tell them about it. I am Sam Ikin. For more on me go to ikinmedia.com.au. That’s I K I N and for more on Dr. Justin Coulson, his website is happyfamilies.com.au – pretty easy to remember. And until next time, thank you for your company.