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Season 2, episode 5

Teens and body image: Starting at home

With so many developmental and even physical changes happening in their lives, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to body image issues. Spurred on by social media, they’re constantly comparing themselves to others.

Having a positive body image can help teens to develop self-esteem, self-confidence, and to develop socially. It can lead to better mental and physical health later in life.

The problem is research shows that, consistently, body image is one of teens’ top three concerns. Also, the number of adolescents reporting body dissatisfaction is increasing, exposing more and more youngsters to long term effects.

Dr Justin Coulson, one of Australia’s top parenting experts says a healthy body image starts at home. “What we shouldn’t be doing is shaming bodies,” he says. “When a child feels disconnected, shamed and unworthy, they’re less likely to take the input of their parents.”

Clinical Psychologist Dr Louise Adams agrees: “Body image is about much more than our bodies,” she says, “It’s actually how we feel about ourselves, based on our physical appearance, and how our physical appearance has been treated in the world.”

In this episode, we look at how the home environment can have a significant influence on a teen’s body image. For example, positive role-modelling and demonstrated kindness toward our bodies and others’ can act as a protective factor to other influences our teens can’t control.

We also hear from Jem and their dad, Richard, and Ashlee and her mom, Christine – Jem and Ashlee have both battled debilitating body image issues, but their families have learned to review body image in ways that are helping to see them through.

Find out more about Body Kind Families

Find out more about Dr. Justin Coulson

Find out more about Eating Disorders Families Australia

Justin Coulson:

Influence follows trust, right? 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.

Sam Ikin:

This is Let’s talk from Butterfly. Your national voice for body image issues and eating disorders. I’m Sam Ikin and I’m really glad that you’re here.

Ashlee Naismith:

There is no instance where it’s appropriate to comment on a child’s weight or appearance. Yeah. Tell them that they look great today because of their smile or just tell them that you love them for who they are.

Sam:

This episode is about body image, but more specifically about the body image issues that are affecting teenagers in increasing numbers.

Louise Adams:

Every single time they do a national youth survey, body image comes up in like usually the top three – global warming, bullying and body image.

Jem Hensley:

What you do and say around other people, especially your own kids and adolescents really affects them.

Sam:

For kids and young adults, this period of identity formation is typically accompanied by an increase in self-awareness, increased ego centrism, growing independence from parents and an increased drive to just fit in with your peers.

Justin:

I want to share with you some data here. This is from The World Health Organization. This is a survey of 42 different countries, 200,000 people. And in every country surveyed, girls at age 15 were 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.

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 right about grade one up to, well, the oldest has moved out, got married. My currency is helping families to be happier. In fact, research from around the world tells us that from around about the age of five, our girls, in particular, are concerned about their bodies.

Sam:

Dr Coulson is one of Australia’s leading parenting experts with six daughters. On his website he says, no, they’re not trying for a boy. He’s also very in demand as a public speaker, and he’s obviously passionate about helping families.

Justin:

If we look at data, even before those adolescent years, I’ve got a book that I just absolutely treasure. It’s so well written. It’s called Beauty Sick by Dr Renee 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. And 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.

Sam:

He’s throwing out a lot of stats about girls here, but it doesn’t mean that boys are not affected. Body dissatisfaction is not just a fringe issue that affects the odd kid here and there. According to the most up to date research, 60% of adolescent boys and around 80% of adolescent girls want to change something about their body. For girls, this tends to be around losing weight, but for boys, 30% seem to want to gain muscle, and the other 30% want to lose fat.

Ashlee:

When I changed into middle school or became around 13, it just all shifted dramatically. Everything was hyper focused on how my skin looked, how my body looked, what people would think about me, how I would appear, or if I was worthy enough for different events of different people. I’m Ash, I’m a student, and I have been on an ongoing journey with my body. I’m looking forward to sharing that with you. As I got older into adolescence, it just was such a high pressure of what I was supposed to be and I felt like I wasn’t living up to it. So, I just became from a free, loving child, just constantly anxious and stressed about just how I looked in my body and it just became so much pressure.

Christine:

Ashlee was a beautiful bubbly little girl. And yeah, she just enjoyed life and was always happy and carefree as a youngster. And I think growing up, you know, the kids become more self-aware of all the messages around them about weight and body image and dieting and all that sort of thing.

Sam:

In case it wasn’t obvious enough. This is Ashlee’s mum, Christine.

Christine:

I’m Christine Naismith, I’m the mom of three children. I have two daughters and one has recovered from anorexia and the other one has a disorder called ARFID. The change in her probably occurred when her sister developed anorexia. Ashlee was only 10 and I think it’s a pretty formative age. That was probably the first time that something ever occurred to her that there’s a problem with dieting and weight stigma and all of this stuff. It never occurred to her, I don’t think prior to that.

Sam:

1/3 of adolescents say they’ve been teased about their weight, and while a portion of that comes from within the home, up to 60% of it comes from peers.

Christine:

So, we were thrown into this really crazy world. But I think that coincided with some off the cuff jokey remarks from people about her physical appearance that really made her very conscious then about her own body and body image.

Sam:

Adolescence is a period of crazy changes. Our bodies are doing weird things and our self awareness is hypersensitive and it usually comes with heightened drive to fit in. We talk a lot about the importance of the language we use or the little offhand comments that people in a position of influence might make. One of the clearest memories I have, that shaped how I felt about my body for years to come, came from a PE teacher when I was in Grade Six. I was about 12 years old, maybe, 11 years old. He said if you can grab more than a handful of fat from your stomach, you’re overweight and you need to do something about it. So, I knew that he was talking about me, I was the chubby kid. It was painfully aware of that. So, he made his point, I got it, I understood. But he hadn’t finished. He then pointed his finger and he said, and I’m talking about you, you and you, and I was the first one that he pointed out. I just remember sitting on the concrete floor, I went cold. Almost everyone who has body image issues has a similar story to tell.

Ashlee:

The one that I kind of see as my snowball effect moment is I was in grade five and was at a ski class.

Christine:

We went to the snow and she was in a ski class and a little boy who she didn’t know was picking on her and called her something like a fatty beef patty or something like that and she was really upset by it.

Ashlee:

This little boy in my class decided to call me a fat patty burger. I also, my whole childhood, had been told you’re a stick your skinny as a noodle, you’re so tiny in an appraising way. And to be then called in front of everyone a fat patty burger, it just kind of shattered my confidence. I just didn’t even notice until then that people looked at my body. I didn’t even notice that people would judge.

Christine:

Chatting to her last night to hear that it has stuck with her since then has really upset me.

Ashlee:

It was a shock to me because I was only 11; that someone could be so openly rude and make a comment like that. And I remember going home crying to mom. That instance just stuck with me. Just one person being rude and saying something so absent mindedly—it wouldn’t affect his day at all—but could wreck my mindset for years to come. It was awful, it feels like it’s just kind of tainted my personality. Whenever I’m having bad weeks or bad moments of body positivity, it’s “Even when you were little, people could see that you were fat, even when you were little, people saw that you’re eating was going to cause this. Look at you now, they were right.” It’s just amazing to me how long a few words can just stick with the person.

Sam:

The constant upward trend in body image concerns among Australia’s teens is a major concern for lots of Australia’s health professionals.

Louise Adams:

This whole idea that we simply need to educate people, because as soon as we educate people about healthy eating, suddenly they’ll all magic their way down to a BMI of 18 to 25 which is, it’s just total BS.

I’m Louise Adams, I’m a clinical psychologist and I work in Sydney in Australia. I’ve been in private practice for 20 years and my area of special interest is in helping people who are struggling with their size, their weight, body image, eating disorders, all of that kind of stuff. There’s this misconception that body image is how much we like what we look like, but it’s actually much bigger than that. Body image is how we feel about ourselves based on our physical appearance and how that’s being treated in the world. So, we talk about our weight being tangled up in our worth, but to some extent in diet culture, everyone’s worth is tied up in their appearance because we know that humans are pretty judgmental characters when it comes to what we look like. We’re living in a culture that really worships thinness and really doesn’t like fatness.

Sam:

So, we’re hearing a lot about all these risk factors and things that contribute to a negative body image. But one thing that we know can act as a protective factor is positive role modelling. We’re talking about parents and carers and the home environment and it’s a significant influence on a child or teen’s developing body image.

Jem Hensley:

Hi, I’m Jem, I am a 21-year-old student.

Richard Hensley:

My name is Richard Hensley um and I’m Jem’s dad, she’s probably my greatest claim to fame.

Jem:

When I was probably about 13 maybe, I think it was in year seven or eight, I started to really notice that I was a little bit bigger than a lot of the other kids at school. And I mean not a lot bigger but just you know, I started to compare myself to others and I started to hear, not from you [to Richard], but I started to hear a few little behind closed doors conversations from my nana and from my mother. You know my nana was on the phone, she was in another room and she’s wow, it’s very her, “Oh, you know, you might not be worried about it now, but when she gets a little older it might affect boys being interested…”

Richard:

Really? Shocker. It was things like going vegetarian. Jem’s reasons for that were animal welfare, nutrition, all of these different reasons I didn’t understand at that point were actually, for her, restrictive eating.

Sam:

We’ll come back to Jem and Richard in just a minute. But first let’s go back to louise Adams, she believes that our society’s belief structures need to fundamentally change because firstly they’re not helpful and secondly, they’re translating into massive mental health issues.

Louise:

Even if everybody ate exactly the same, we would still have body diversity because bodies are diverse and also bodies enjoy homeostasis—once we’re past puberty, what body’s enjoy is weight stability. They don’t like changing.

Sam:

As a parent or carer being this role model that we’re supposed to be is easier said than done, there are lots of environmental factors that influence body image these days. Things like social media and diet culture and a lot of these things were things that parents didn’t have to deal with themselves. The science of puberty may be the same, but the environment that it happens in has changed significantly.

Louise:

We didn’t have the online stuff, did we? I remember the cover of Dolly and always remaining mystified as to who that person was. I remember reading a stat about, on average, we are exposed to about 5000 photoshopped images of the ideal body per week and from psychological research, we know that simple exposure to a few pictures of the ideal body can make women feel terrible about themselves. So, 5000 a week from like the age of eight years old, 5678 years old, it’s actually incredible. I think if we manage to get to adulthood with any kind of feeling okay about our body with that kind of onslaught of imaging… And then if we think about what’s coming from the other side, which is all of the very hysterical campaigning about the obesity epidemic and how it’s very, very important not to get that. These are two very big pressures that are constant. And that’s what diet culture is. Diet culture is not just the thin ideal and social media, diet culture is the obesity messaging that we must not be fat. We must always be small.

Christine:

This generation has just got an extra layer of pressures, Sam, you know, the social media and the internet has just created almost a monster for these children that we never had to experience. You know, everything’s in their face the whole time. Whether their posts of being liked or whether they’re being included in, you know, social chats and things like that. There’s a whole lot of underlying even bullying that’s going on or being left out of things that we never knew as kids.

Sam:

Given all of these added pressures and risk factors, Dr. Coulson says having a solid base in the family home is even more important.

Justin:

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 mom is 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 ice cream and I’m going to hide under the doona and watch Netflix and cry about how I’m not good enough in my parents’ eyes. 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:

Yeah, as if they don’t know.

Justin:

Believe me, she knows.

Sam:

This idea that fat people need to be told that they’re fat. As someone who’s been fat for like, you know, on and off for most of my life is phenomenal. Everyone knows.

Justin:

Yes, everywhere. If they look in the mirror, they’ll know, and making them feel shame only creates disconnection.

Sam:

But what about this increasing move towards body positivity that we do see emerging in social media? Well, Dr. Adams has been watching this very closely over the past 10 years or so, and she says it’s really encouraging, but it has by no means addressed the problem.

Louise:

Okay, there’s definitely still a long way to go to. The world that I would love to create for our kids and all humans is completely inclusive of body diversity and that includes bodies that are changing and growing.

Christine:

Certainly, there’s a lot of peer group pressure and social media has a lot to answer for. And probably even the stuff that they’re teaching at schools, you know, health education, they’re taught to record what they eat for a week and things like that, it really doesn’t help. You know, she’s a lovely kid and she just needs to be accepted and she feels she’s being judged and that’s just wrong. She’s developed this body mist dysmorphia, she’s a very tall, lean girl, but she has this body dysmorphia where she sees something else and it’s just tied to a low self-worth, low self-esteem and that’s come from years of hearing these messages which just get reinforced in her head.

Justin:

And the research again highlights, I mean, this is this 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. you need to lose weight. You need to do this, do that.

You’re putting on a lot. I mean, come on. That casts 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 bracket of say, let’s say 30 to 50 who still 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; by the way the opposite of acceptance is rejection. 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 trust follows 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. They don’t try to change you because they accept you, but they have the greatest influence.

Jem:

There are lots of ways that people can express themselves—in colourful clothing or haircuts or whatever they’re into that are nothing about body image. Yet these things are self-expression and they articulate who you are as a human being, which is far healthier. I think that’s something I’ve always appreciated about my dad as well. He’s never done that. You know, he’s never sort of looked at someone and said, “Oh, you know that person like, wow, she’s gotten quite overweight,” and “Oh, he’s you know, he’s looking quite old,” or anything like that. You know, he doesn’t assign physical judgments to people. He might be like, “Oh, that’s an interesting combination of shirt and pants,” but he’s not going to say, you know, “Oh, that person is ugly.”

Louise:

My advice for parents would be to think about how you think about your body and then think, “Is that okay if my child thinks that about their body?” And if the answer is no, there’s some work to do. There are some gaps to fill in because, yeah, the body diverse idea, like the body inclusive, strong body image idea, is that all bodies are different. All bodies are worth taking care of, not what we look like.

Justin:

Brene Brown, who is probably the world’s most popular academic…

Sam:

Yeah. Dare to Lead, Rising Strong

Justin:

Yeah, all that 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, she’s in her mid-teens and I’m a caring parent who has the very best of intentions and I say, “Hey sweetheart, have you noticed your 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 love 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? Well, my value is obviously intrinsically related to my physical appearance, my physical appearance is crap. So therefore, what’s the point?”

Ashlee:

I would just advise parents to never comment on weight or food. Even if it’s a compliment for being your weight and being skinny. That then makes an association of they love me this way. So, I just cannot stress this enough. Just never. There is no instance where it’s appropriate to comment on a child’s weight or appearance. Yeah. Tell them that they look great today because of their smile, they just tell them that you love them for who they are. Do not put any value to a number on a scale or how their body looks

Sam:

For anyone interested in finding out more about creating a body kind environment in your home, support is available at Body Kind Families. It’s a new, free Butterfly initiative providing resources and important tips for parents of teenagers to help them develop a positive body image and be more kind to their bodies. The resources have been developed by Butterfly and leading body image experts and they’re based around topics that parents of teens have said were important to them.

If you jump onto the website https://butterfly.org.au/get-involved/campaigns/bodykindfamilies/ you’ll find videos, tip sheets, family activities and more. All you need to do is sign up, and you’ll be sent an email, linking you to all those great resources.

If you need support for an eating disorder, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline over the phone on 1 800 33 4673. That’s 1 800 EDHOPE. Or go https://butterfly.org.au/ to find heaps of resources. To find out more about any of our guests, particularly the experts, jump into the show notes and we’ll have all the links to where you can find out more about what they do.

The Butterfly podcast is an Ikin Media production for Butterfly Foundation with special thanks in this episode to Dr Justin Coulson and Dr Louise Adams and for sharing their stories, Ashlee and Christine and Jem and Richard. Thank you so much. And if you want to support the Butterfly Let’s Talk podcast, the only thing that we ask is that you tell somebody who you think could benefit from it. And, also, if you could leave us a review and rate us as many stars as you think appropriate—I’d suggest five—on whatever platform that you’re listening to this: Spotify, apple iTunes…We’d really appreciate that too.

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