These behaviors may indicate that your tween is struggling with body image issues. Seek help if she is:
- Reluctant to look at herself in the mirror
- Spending more time alone in her room
- Having disordered eating habits: refusing indulgent foods, becoming very picky, eating secretively, or bingeing
- Putting herself down in a range of ways, especially about how she looks
- Preferring to wear loose clothes, to hide either a full or a fragile figure
Issues about body image loom large in a preteen's world. From growing taller and changing shape in the years leading up to puberty to the roller-coaster ride of confidence about physical appearance, your tween will struggle with her feelings about who she sees looking back at her in the mirror. Worries can be as mild as "I wish my legs were longer" or "My calves are too fat — they're gross!" to the more alarming "I hate everything about myself."
These fears can be triggered by a variety of factors. One obvious source is peer pressure. Both girls and boys face heavy pressure from friends and advertisements to look a certain way by wearing particular fashions or owning status accessories like cell phones or even school bags. It is very easy for tweens to view these items as part of their overall body image and believe that not having a particular brand of pants or sneakers makes them not OK as opposed to simply not looking OK.
Add to this the cult of celebrity and the creeping sexualization of childhood, plus the media obsession with thin, sexy models, movie stars, cosmetics, and "nip-and-tuck" jobs, and it's no surprise that many impressionable tweens are conflicted about their looks. They may become convinced that they're acceptable, likeable, and popular only if they present themselves as alluring, perfectly shaped, and conforming to popularized ideals of beauty. Tween girls, and increasingly boys as well, can become truly distressed that some aspect of their face or body is not perfect — and there are so many parts to inspect and judge! Boys can obsess over ears that stick out, too-curly hair, or big knees as much as girls do about eyebrows, lips, stomachs, or butts. Their increasing fixation on body image leads some to work out in gyms and use weights far too soon; growing bones and muscles can be damaged by such strain.
Preparing for Puberty
The pursuit of perfection is not healthy, and public campaigns for healthier living and eating can add another layer to preteen anguish and calorie obsession long before anyone needs to worry. Prepubescent children often get chubby in preparation for their growth spurt. Girls in particular will fill out unevenly as their bodies begin to take an adult shape — of which they should be proud, not ashamed. Younger tweens can naturally be very slight, but beware: If you heap praise on them at this stage for being slim, they could be tempted to eat less and defy puberty to stay that way.
A growing tween needs a full and properly balanced diet that includes both fat and sugar to meet a range of neurological and physical developmental needs. A healthy, low-fat diet is not a no-fat diet. Children can also become ill and unbalanced without any fat intake. From the age of 10, a girl should gain up to 11 pounds a year as a normal part of growing. Boys' growth surge starts, on average, two years later, from about 12 years old and onward.
Two related problems are, of course, obesity and binge eating. Tweens that simply don't have the genetic material to have a "perfect" body shape, or who are unhappy in other ways, may console themselves through comfort eating unless families make it absolutely clear that a young person is lovable and beautiful regardless of shape or size.
How You Can Help
We know from research that children as young as 5 years old are aware of diet and healthy eating and see being slim as highly desirable. To head off problems and help to reinforce a positive body image in your tween, try these suggestions:
- Always focus on the person inside. Separate who she is from how she looks, because personality matters more than facial features, body shape, or fashion. Given the power of the "glamour" industry and commercials, you simply cannot overdo this strategy. Comment far more on your tween's personal qualities—and other people's, too—than on how she looks.
- Avoid the word "pretty." If your tween looks great in special occasion clothes, rather than saying how pretty she looks, compliment her on her choice of outfit ("That looks really good on you!"), her creativity, or on his color coordination or the care he's taken. Compliment both boys and girls on everyday outfits: "Since you're going to play in Sam's yard, it's great you've chosen to wear those easy-wash items."
- Stay affectionate and physical, even though they're growing older. If the cuddles stop, a tween could think you're finding him unattractive now that he is taller or bigger or has more of an adult shape.
- Counter negative self-talk. When you hear "I'm no good, I'm ugly, my hair's too wild," respond with "You look really great. I don't know what you're seeing, so I want to hear no more of this." Never comment on your tween's skin blemishes or face or body shape. Say you hadn't noticed, or never notice, if they point things out to you.
- Keep your own personal diet issues clear of the family meal table. This talk is for your friends only, as it can plant unhelpful ideas.
- Look in a mirror with your tween and ask what she sees. Then tell her what you see, and describe the person, not the body.
- Respond to any worrying weight gain with new routines for extra exercise, not diets. The research is clear that strict diets and total bans for these children can cause more harm than good, leading to secret eating and bingeing.
Your tween may not appear to be listening to you when you offer a proper perspective on body image, but be assured she does hear you. Keep it positive and you can help her manage the mirror.