Weighing in…how to approach your teen on body image

New York City’s ad campaign that proclaims “I’m Beautiful the Way I Am” is a well-intended but silly effort to improve the self-concept of preteen girls.

The focus on convincing girls that they are all good-looking is exactly the wrong message we should be sending our children. We shouldn’t be celebrating on their physical characteristics, but rather paying attention to their ethics and achievement. As every parent knows, such slogans will have no effect. Girls are smart enough to know that not everyone is equally physically attractive, and a poster on a subway won’t and shouldn’t convince them otherwise.

The real problem with this initiative is that it is based on the false notion that convincing kids to feel better about themselves is important. The premise is that if children have a positive self-concept, they will do better in school and behave more responsibly.  The scientific research is overwhelmingly clear that there is no connection between a positive self-concept and good behavior.

Preteen girls are at a vulnerable age as they approach puberty and grapple with a myriad of physical and emotional changes. These can be tough times for our girls, but here’s how parents can help out.

1. Focus on achievement. Kids develop a legitimate positive sense of self-worth when they experience success, not when they read some platitude on a poster. Expose your preteen to lots of different experiences, and see what connects with their interests and abilities. Applaud both effort and accomplishment. Think beyond traditional gender roles, and encourage interests in a variety of activities.

2. Deal directly and honestly with body image issues. It would be nice to tell our girls that it doesn’t really matter how you look, as what’s really important is the type of person you are “on the inside.”  We know that’s a lie. We are judged daily on our appearance and don’t try to convince your child otherwise. Take a balanced approach, and focus on activities that promote a healthy lifestyle. Get your family involved in lots of physical activities, and be guided by your child’s interests.Overweight preteens present a special challenge, as parents have to very mindful of their words when discussing these issues with their kids.  The sensitivity meter of many girls is set very high, and these conversations will resonate for years.  While our children’s worth is not reflected by the numbers on a scale, you should help your child develop habits to avoid the health consequences of excess weight.

If Mayor Bloomberg had consulted with me on an ad campaign for preteen girls, here what I would have emphasized—Work hard. Learn self-control. Stay connected to your family and friends. Develop a genuine appreciation of life.

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