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How to Improve Body Image and Self-Esteem in Overweight Teens

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Overweight teens who have a higher body satisfaction and positive body image also tend to have higher self-esteem, and are less prone to engage in unhealthy behaviors to control their weight (such as vomiting and missing meals).

So says a new study that will be included in the Journal of Adolescent Health in June 2012.

“A focus on enhancing self-image while providing motivation and skills to engage in effect weight-control behaviors may help protect young girls from feelings of depression, anxiety or anger sometimes association with being overweight,” said Kerri Boutelle, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, in a press release.

Experts have some suggestions for how parents can help their overweight teens improve their body image in order to potentially prevent any negative psychological or emotional issues.

Ragen Chastain, a dancer, choreographer, speaker, “fat person” and writer of the blog Dances With Fat, said in an email that there is one main way parents can help their teens have a high body satisfaction.

“Take the focus off of weight and put it on health,” Chastain said.

“By taking a health-focused approach, kids see healthy behaviors as ways to feel good and nurture their bodies, and they succeed every time they engage in a healthy behavior, and develop a lifelong love of healthy foods and movement (instead of seeing healthy behaviors as punishment for being fat or a way to keep from becoming fat, and judging their success or failure based on a scale.)”

She said in general she believes overweight adolescents tend to have more issues with healthy self-esteem and body image.

“Kids don’t separate themselves from their bodies, so you cannot have a ‘war on childhood obesity’ without having a war on obese kids,” Chastain said.

“These teens are the casualties of that war. When Michelle Obama says that she wants to eradicate childhood obesity in a generation, obese kids hear that she wants to eradicate them.”

She added that research suggests that in most cases, “weight control behaviors led to eating disorders and obesity, but did not lead to normal weight teens or adults.” However, this insistence on certain weight loss behaviors is still prevalent.

“Kids don’t take care of things they hate, and that includes their bodies, so any health intervention that includes body shame is going to create self-esteem and body image issues,” Chastain said.

“Meanwhile studies show that healthy habits lead to healthy bodies of many shapes and sizes. We are doing it wrong, it’s time to be honest about that and shift the focus to a health-centered approach.”

She said that according to research, since there has been a focus on children’s weight in the past few years, there has been an increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders in children.

She added that girls seem to have a few different challenges than boys when it comes to their body acceptance.

“They are sold the message that they should judge their beauty by whether or not boys like them/want to have sex with them, and boys are sold the idea that fat women are ugly, disgusting, lazy, unhealthy etc.,” Chastain said.

Janet Zinn, a licensed clinical social worker, said in an email that parents need to start with their own body image issues in order to help their children. Here are her suggestions:

  1. “First, and most importantly do not speak poorly of your own body. Children pick up these behaviors and deem it acceptable because you are doing it. Learn to love or accept your own body, and it will be easier for your daughter to accept hers.”
  2. “If you have spoken ill of your own body in the past, let her know you're learning to change that and perhaps you can work on that together to support one another to only say kind things to each other and about yourselves.”

She said overweight teens seem to have more self-esteem and body acceptance issues because of how our society is, and once a focus on thinness changes, so will the issues that overweight teens have.

“The only reason overweight teens may have more issues is because our society perpetuates unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of one super skinny body fits all,” Zinn said.

“When we can embrace diversity in size, and appreciate the beauty of difference, then the messages that go out to teens will alter their negative self-esteem.”

Some teens may also be overweight due to emotional eating, which only adds to the negativity they feel.

“Some teens may eat as a way to soothe internal suffering,” Zinn said. “If that is the case, they are already feeling bad, and the negative messages they receive from others about their bodies only increases their pain, especially when they are already feeling fragile.”

Michelle Phillips, the author of "The Beauty Blueprint: 8 Steps to Building the Life and Look of Your Dreams,” said it’s important to have teens value themselves outside of their bodies.

“The girls who are happy with their bodies are happy inside,” Phillips said.

“Work with your teens to build their self-esteem by focusing on their qualities that aren't physical; their hearts, minds, and spirits. Big or small, these are the qualities of true beauty that no one can take from you.”

She said there is a lot of pressure to be perfect from the media, and overweight teens don’t take this message lightly.

“What they don't know is that there is no such thing as perfect,” Phillips said.

“As a celebrity makeup artist who has worked with some of the top names in modeling and entertainment, I know how much goes into [making] them appear perfect and how they really feel about themselves. We are all perfect in our own way and need to learn to celebrate our so-called perfect and imperfect qualities. Think of this, perfect copies have no value, but ‘originals’ are priceless.”

Lyn Hicks, a “living green expert,” said in an email that just encouraging teens to dance and do yoga can improve how they feel about themselves. She said women in general, and teens who are overweight, tend to be disconnected from their bodies and engage in emotional eating. However, by dancing they can learn to connect to their bodies again.

“It helps emotions move without thinking about it, negative energy is released easily through movement, it helps our self-esteem, our sense of beauty, gets us out of our head, and of course will help us physically because dancing is a work out,” Hicks said.

“It is a wonderful starting place to offer a teen such a simple practice.”

Shafonne Myers, a certified wedding and event planner who has a plus-size bride website and print magazine, added in an email that overweight teens need to be informed that success comes at all sizes in order to help their body image and self-esteem issues.

“Parents have to help children understand that they are not alone and that there are other people, celebrities and such, that are larger and they are still successful and doing well,” Myers said.

“Being plus size all my life, I was always brought up to realize that I am who I am and I'm beautiful any way I was. I think this is what has let to my confidence and success.”

She thinks that low self-esteem and body image issues are not only reserved for overweight teens -- skinny teens suffer too.

“I think the biggest point to emphasize is that people become more confident about their body types when they are exposed to people and situations where their body type is prevalent,” Myers said.

“We can't expect an overweight person to be confident about their body type if they never see other people with that body type that they look up to or see as being successful. This is what translates to them that their body type is OK, thus building self-confidence.”

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