Jim Daly Christian Blog and Commentary

How You Can Spot Body Image Issues in Your Teen

  • Jim Daly Jim Daly is president and chief executive officer of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families thrive.
  • 2013 May 14

Have you heard about “thigh gap” yet? If not, it’s likely your teenage daughter or granddaughter has.

Thigh gap is a troubling – and potentially dangerous – new trend. It’s causing some girls to starve themselves in hopes of achieving a gap between their thighs when they stand with their knees together. Other girls exercise obsessively or resort to other self-destructive behavior, so they can become thin enough to accomplish the thigh gap and post pictures of their success on social networking sites like Tumblr.

When trends like these emerge, I’m grateful for the team of counselors we have at Focus. They can shed light on the root causes of body image disorders like thigh gap – and can help parents successfully walk with their children through what can be a scary and confusing time.

Christina works as one of our ministry’s counselors, and she recently shared some advice about this new obsession. She talked about warning signs, what’s normal and what’s not, and pointed out some resources that will help parents learn more about body image issues so often prevalent among young women. She also gives great advice on how to get difficult conversations started with the young person in your life.

What’s at the root of trends like thigh gap? Why do some girls fixate on things like that?

The issue around thigh gap is, at its core, a body image issue. Like any other body image disorder, it’s part of an identity crisis that reveals where the young lady is getting her sense of worth from. In this case, the teenage girl is getting her identity from what she looks like, instead of who she is in Christ.

When someone becomes so focused on body image or things like thigh gap, the danger is that the disordered thinking leads to disordered actions. It also impacts eating and living, and the teenage girl is at risk to develop eating disorders like anorexia.

It’s also worth noting that we’re seeing a huge rise in male teens with body image issues and eating disorders.

What causes body image issues?

A lot of it is caused by comparing ourselves to other people. We look to our peers for a measure of who we should be, or what we should look like – and this tendency is now facilitated by social media.

When a person becomes very competitive in wanting to be like everyone else, or to be liked, you’ll soon start to see a competitive edge that insists on wanting to do X, Y or Z no matter what. For example, your teen may insist on running outside for an hour despite the freezing blizzard and weather warnings.

What are some red flags parents can watch out for in their children?

There are a few warning signs that can indicate to parents that there may be trouble lurking. First, parents can watch for changes to a teen’s sleeping, eating and exercise habits.

You may also notice complete emotional meltdowns in reaction to body changes. We’re not talking about normal disappointments to gaining five pounds or to a pair of jeans not fitting well at the store fitting room – I mean an unwarranted emotional reaction to what seems like a small trigger.

Another thing parents will notice is a personality change. If their daughter was outgoing and carefree, she’ll become isolated. She may not talk with you. She may not socialize with the same peers, or go from a large social group to a few friends. Conversely a daughter who is usually quiet and introverted may suddenly try to fit in with large groups and may be working towards popularity.

The teenage and young adult years can be a confusing time. I’ve heard from parents of teens that it seems their son or daughter changes every five minutes. How can a mom and dad distinguish between what’s part of normal teenage development and what’s not?

You’re right – teenagers are trying to find themselves. They’re trying to figure out who they are, and they tend to ‘try on’ new roles for themselves. They’re trying out new things. It’s also normal for teenagers – and for all of us, actually – to struggle in some way with our body image.

I encourage parents to listen to and choose relationship with teens. This puts parents in a better place to notice when their son or daughter becomes stuck with disordered thinking, and when that thinking leads to a disordered lifestyle.

When I’m talking about behavioral changes, I’m talking about things that go way beyond what’s expected. Generally you don’t have to look for these changes, because they won’t be temporary or too subtle. You’ll see changes in your teen and wonder, ‘Where did my child go?’

The prospect of talking about such a sensitive issue with their teenage girl can be intimidating to some parents. I can imagine moms and dads might feel overwhelmed and at a loss as to how approach a conversation like this. Can you give any pointers?

Oftentimes, when you ask your teen how they feel about something, they’ll respond with an ‘I don’t know.’  That can be very frustrating for a parent to hear. One way around this is to remember that most teenagers are very friend-oriented, and to use that to help draw information out of your son or daughter.

Instead of asking your teen directly about how they feel, ask, ‘What do you and your friends think about this? What are they saying in school about that?’ Oftentimes, that will help a teen open up. They’ll talk about what people are saying or thinking. This technique could be the key to opening the door. From here you’ll learn about the expectations they are feeling from their friends, what they think about things, and so on. Spending time doing an activity that your teen chooses and enjoys doing can also open up conversation and insight into their world.

At that point, it’s easier for parents to enter the situation with advice and perspective on what God has to say about our bodies.

Is there a way to help prevent these issues in our children?

We make a big deal about talking about the “birds and the bees.” In my view, the conversation about body image should go hand-in-hand with sex education because it’s all connected. It’s all part of who we are, who God created us to be and how to honor God with our bodies.

So as you have your talks with your kids as they grow up, connect it all to the larger issues. The earlier parents start connecting God’s design for our bodies the easier it is to feel secure in the body God gave you. That will help build a foundation you can continue to build on. 

Obviously, issues as complicated as body image disorders aren’t something that can fully be dealt with in a blog post. If you want more information on the topic, you can visit the parenting area on Focus’ website which features a section on Eating Disorders and Kids.

If you feel your child has an eating disorder, I encourage you to contact us at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) to arrange to speak with one of our licensed professional counselors. For more information, please visit our Counseling Services and Referrals page.

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