There are a number of reasons why so many teenagers experience body image struggles, one of which is our cultural relationship to emotions. When we feel uncomfortable feelings like sadness or loneliness or rejection, we don’t have the resources for relating to or soothing these feelings, so we look for ways avoid them by distracting ourselves with something that makes us FEEL BETTER IN THE MOMENT.
It’s easy to forget how sad we are when we’re eating, drinking, working out, buying clothes, dieting, or looking on social media.
So our minds start to associate these HABITS with feeling GOOD. Which means that anytime we feel sad or lonely or rejected, we start thinking that it must be because we haven’t done enough of this thing our mind assumes “should make us feel better”.
For example we may start thinking:
“If I lost MORE weight, then I wouldn’t feel sad”
“If I had BETTER clothes, then I wouldn’t feel rejected”
“If MORE people liked photos of me on Instagram, then I wouldn’t feel unattractive”
“If I could be MORE controlled with my eating, then I wouldn’t feel insecure”
Of course these beliefs only lead to more confusion, because no amount of ANYTHING can “take away” feelings. This way of thinking is built on a belief that we can only be content if we NEVER feel sad or insecure or unlovable.
But true contentment in life doesn’t occur from never feeling these very real human emotions, it occurs from embracing what we are truly experiencing, even if it hurts.
We all struggle to understand this message when we are in pain, but teenagers are especially vulnerable because they are going through such an insecure time of life, and their feelings are that much more intense and overwhelming.
What teenagers need is space to openly examine their relationship to their feelings, their habits, and their bodies.
Telling teens to “love themselves for who they are” without giving them the guidance of how to embrace and work through their very real and very normal insecurities only makes them feel worse, because then they feel a sense of failure in their inability to love themselves (on top of everything else).
So here are some practical tools for relating to the young people in your life that will help them develop a healthy body image through exploring their true feelings:
Encourage them to become curious about the way they feel about their body. If they don’t like something about the way they look, open up the dialogue! Help them explore it with language like: “I’m sorry to hear you feel that way…can you tell me a bit more about what you don’t like? Where does that thought come from? What do you believe you should look like? Why do you want to look like that?” This will help them relate to their underlying feelings directly, which means they have a chance to process and move through them.
Acknowledge your own body insecurities (we all have them and they will feel yours even if you don’t mention them!) and then role model the practice of loving your body. Seeing someone they admire and trust openly work with and move through these issues is the absolute best information young people can ever receive. Eg “I have always struggled with the way my legs look and I judge myself so harshly for it sometimes. I am really working on shifting my attitude and seeing how incredible my legs are for carrying me everywhere I want to go in life.”
Help them explore what feels good for their body. This includes what they eat, how they move, what they wear, and how they hold themselves. The more they make empowered choices about their body, the more they will grow to love and appreciate it, and be less likely to do things that negatively impact their body in the search of short-term emotional relief.
Help them identify what they are FEELING when they start doing unhelpful things to their body Eg “I hear you saying that you feel bad about yourself after you binge/purge/drink alcohol etc…I wonder what you’re feeling that makes you want to do that?” Self-defeating patterns of behaviour always start with a feeling that we are trying to avoid, so if they can identify that they feel lonely or rejected or unloveable, they are halfway there.
Then you can help them figure out a different way they can relate to and take care of that feeling (eg take a bath, go for a walk, ask for a hug) so they no longer need to engage in unhelpful habits in a search to avoid it.
Body image is unfortunately a life-long journey in our culture. If you can provide young people with guidance on this topic, you are helping them in immeasurable ways that they will draw on long into the future.
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