Skip to main content

Helping teens build a healthy body image

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 2:37 PM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New York mom says she's always mindful of her teens' body image
  • Two in three 13-year-olds worry about gaining weight, according to study
  • Girls are bombarded with "superskinny" images, a women's advocate says
  • The best advice to parents, per psychotherapists: Never say "Do I look fat?"

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Seven years ago, Dawn Larkin-Wallace, a mom of three, took up running to lose that 10 to 20 pounds of baby weight that just wouldn't go away.

She figured once she dropped the weight, she'd be off the treadmill.

What she could have never imagined is that she'd become a marathon runner who inspired her three children to start running, too.

"We're just a running family," said Larkin-Wallace of Baldwin, New York, who is part of the running club Black Girls RUN!, a national group encouraging African-American women to make health and fitness a priority.

First, Larkin-Wallace signed up 15-year-old daughter Kayla, a high school sophomore, for a race after realizing that the amount of running she did during her soccer games was the equivalent of a 5K.

With the "positive peer pressure ... and the competitive spirit" that exists in the Wallace household, she said with a laugh, "of course, her brother and sister decided that that's something they wanted to do, too."

Kimberly, 11, and Kevin Jr., 9, ran their first 5K's this year.

READ: The girl in the mirror is my enemy

Cherry Cheng, a mom of two, says her daily exercise has rubbed off on her kids, including her 5-year-old daughter, Dora, who likes to do yoga and dance with her mom. "I don't tell them what to eat (and) what not to eat," said the Arcadia, California, resident. "They learn from (us)." Cherry Cheng, a mom of two, says her daily exercise has rubbed off on her kids, including her 5-year-old daughter, Dora, who likes to do yoga and dance with her mom. "I don't tell them what to eat (and) what not to eat," said the Arcadia, California, resident. "They learn from (us)."
iReport: Healthy living tips for teens
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
Healthy living tips for teens Healthy living tips for teens
Generation stressed: teens boiling over
Talking to teens about social media
How 'selfies' can boost self-confidence

Larkin-Wallace said her goal is for "healthy living to become a lifestyle and not just a fad" among her kids, who also play a range of sports from basketball to soccer to lacrosse.

What she's also very mindful of is encouraging her children, especially her girls, to feel good about their bodies. A recent study found that two in three 13-year-olds worry about gaining weight.

Helping her girls feel good about their bodies

"It's always on my mind, and I have African-American daughters. ... I have to help them understand that because their body type is different than others doesn't make one better or more right than the other," she said during a conversation with her family in their home.

"As long as we're healthy and taking care of ourselves ... the way we are made is the way we are made and we should accept ourselves."

That isn't always easy, she added, especially when she goes clothes shopping with her girls.

READ: Fat is the new ugly word on the playground

"Total meltdown in the dressing room trying on jeans and I'm like, 'Well, Kayla, everything is not cut for everybody so you just have to find what works for you,'" said Larkin-Wallace.

"It's something I live with. It's something my mom lives with. She's going to have to live with it. It's just the way it is. (You) just have to find what manufacturer or designer works for you and live a healthy lifestyle and love yourself."

But what makes that harder than when Larkin-Wallace was growing up is that today's teenagers are inundated with messages in the media "telling them that they either need to be superskinny or they need to have this unrealistic ... video-girl body," said Ashley Hicks, who co-founded Black Girls RUN! in 2009. The organization, with 70 groups across the country, has approximately 60,000 members.

And it's not just girls who are experiencing body image problems. Boys are also flooded with images of what a manly man is supposed to look like, which can be just as harmful as the media's depiction of girls.

Hicks said the best way to counteract those messages is by "showcasing that not everyone who runs or is fit is a size 2 or a size 4. They're going to be size 8s and 10s and 12s and 14s."

"A lot of people are going to have curves and there's nothing wrong with that."

"Do I look fat?"

Up against the media, some parents might feel helpless when it comes to helping their teens develop a positive body image, but there's a lot that parents can do, said Anne Wennerstrand, a psychotherapist in private practice in Katonah, New York, who works with teens and parents to treat and prevent eating and body image problems.

READ: Social media positive for teens? Maybe!

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace: \
CNN's Kelly Wallace: "Four words I try to never utter around my girls -- 'Do I look fat?'"

How we talk about our own bodies directly affects how our children might feel about theirs, she said.

"Are we asking 'Do I look fat?' or are we making excessive comments about appearance even in casual conversation?" said Wennerstrand, who is also on the faculty of The Women's Therapy Centre Institute.

"If parents can raise their own awareness of how much they're commenting about appearance, how critical do they feel of their own bodies, that's really where it starts."

Dr. Larissa Hirsch, medical editor for KidsHealth.org, added, "It's just hard for a teenager to grow up in a household where someone is constantly saying 'I look fat in this' and not internalize some of that."

The best advice for parents, Hirsch said, is to focus less on appearance and more on health, internal qualities and "things that your body can do, rather than how your body appears."

"Compliment them on things that have nothing to do with appearance: how well they shared with their brother, how nicely they stood up for their friend, how generous they were, things of that nature, trying to be supportive and positive and showing the importance of things that have less to do with appearance and more to do with the type of person you are," said Hirsch.

Starting healthy early

Parents can also help their kids by showing them, even when they're little, how to be healthy. That means a lifestyle that includes physical activity, but also eating right, and not making the mistake of missing meals and eating too much fast food and too many desserts.

"Seeing what the parents eat, that makes a big impact," Hirsch said. "Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy options. It's hard when you go to the kitchen to get something to eat and the things that you see are all of these snack foods that are filled with fat and salt and calories."

Helping children develop healthy habits early, even as young as elementary school or in the tween years, can set them on a healthy lifestyle path into their teens and beyond, said Toni Carey, the other co-founder of Black Girls RUN!

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

In her early years and all through middle school, Carey said she was the "chubby kid in class," and that it wasn't until her adult years that she really started to take care of herself.

READ: SOS for stressed out teens

"I look back on that time and think, 'Wow, what if I started running in middle school or high school or just creating healthy habits, it wouldn't be so difficult now,'" Carey said.

"So that's why, we know that the moms are the key to making things happen in the household. If mom is being healthy and eating right, then everybody else will, too."

That's definitely the case in the Wallace household, where the children are following mom's lead in the kitchen and on the running track, and seem very comfortable with how they look.

"When you exercise and you feel good, it's like I don't need to look like a Victoria's Secret model," said 15-year-old Kayla. "I just need to feel healthy about myself."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. CNN's Michaela Pereira grew up in a family of five adopted girls in Canada and eventually reunited with her biological half-sister.
updated 2:39 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
It began for Nickolay Lamm as a question: What would Barbie look like if she had the dimensions of an average woman?
updated 9:16 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Bill Cosby was thought of as a perceptive comedian and genial father figure. Now, that persona pairs with another, much darker image.
updated 12:35 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
If you think 'my teen would never sext,' you might be mistaken. Recent studies suggest it's more common than many parents might want to admit.
updated 6:44 AM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
I pictured myself graduating from college, getting a cool job and even having a cute place of my own. Instead, I wake to the early-morning sounds of my family dog barking and my parents making coffee downstairs.
updated 12:38 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Samantha Futerman and Anais Bordier tease, poke and prod each other like they've grown up together, but they didn't. Neither woman knew she had an identical twin sister until less than two years ago.
updated 9:02 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
A school district in Maryland has decided to remove all references to religious holidays from its school calendar, leaving some in the community frustrated.
updated 12:06 PM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
Female veterans often have a harder time finding employment than their male counterparts. But why?
updated 3:19 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
I simply couldn't believe my eyes. At a children's party this year, I witnessed full-on "mean girl" behavior.
updated 12:24 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Several children were sent to the hospital after being sickened by ingesting detergent pods.
updated 9:46 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
There are plenty of times when I literally wish I could take a hammer to the portrayal of girls and women in the media. In a new ad, a little girl gets to do just that.
updated 10:09 AM EST, Sat November 8, 2014
"Playing doctor" and "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" are common rites of passage in childhood sexual behavior, according to the experts.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
A tech startup claims credit for making Alex from Target go viral, but there's skepticism about how involved it was, if at all.
updated 5:47 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
A soft toy for cribs lets babies post pictures of themselves to social media.
updated 11:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Schools are increasingly confronting a controversial question: Should they do more to monitor students' online interactions off-campus to keep them safe?
updated 11:56 AM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
The National Toy Hall of Fame recently inducted three new favorites into its hallowed halls. What's your favorite?
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
We don't know, and may never know, what led to the Washington school shooting, but we have to ask ourselves, following this tragedy, if we are doing enough to help our boys deal with difficult emotions without resorting to violence.
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
The viral video of a New York woman being catcalled on the street has men asking, "So, what should I do?" The answer starts with respect.
updated 2:40 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Trick-or-treating and dressing in costume have been Halloween traditions for a good long time now, but it seems we're still struggling to get it right.
updated 4:38 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Yes, there's actually corn in it. Corn syrup, if that counts.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Walmart found itself sending apology tweet after apology tweet after the Twitterverse raked it over the coals for a major goof on its website.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
There aren't too many times when I'm speechless about what I consider an outrageous example of parenting. This is one of those times.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Holy crap, LeVar Burton.
updated 5:38 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Critics pounced on supermodel Gisele Bundchen for advocating a little mommy "me time" recently. When did it become a crime to admit that you -- as a parent -- put yourself first?
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Not again.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
"Breaking Bad's" drug-dealing chemistry teacher Walter White will have to stop making the sale at Toys R Us.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
I happen to agree with Renee Zellweger that all the chatter about her face is "silly." But I, and many other women I talked with via email Wednesday, would add some other choice words to the mix to describe the non-stop attention about her appearance: nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
updated 6:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
I have long thought millennials, who expect flexibility in the workplace, would be the group that would bring an end to the stigma that is too often associated with flex time -- the belief that wanting a flexible work arrangement means you aren't willing to work as hard. But now I'm thinking it's going to be men who will get us there.
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Say it with us: Kids today have it sooooo easy.
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
An Atlanta judge reportedly reprimanded an immigration attorney for bringing her 4-week-old to court for a hearing -- a hearing she asked the judge to reschedule because she was on her six-week maternity leave.
updated 11:04 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Monica Lewinsky tweeted for the first time. She called herself "patient zero" of cyber-bullying.
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Meet Shyanne Roberts, a 10-year-old competitive shooter with something to prove: "Kids and guns don't always mean bad things happen."
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
strawberry ghosts
We love Halloween season. Sweets. Sweaters. Sipping hot cider (maybe spiked). Halloween can certainly get you in the spirit, and nothing warms our hearts like these healthy Halloween treats that help you stay energized instead of stuck in a sugar coma.
updated 3:23 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Does your baby cry during long flights, causing you to want to disappear from the glares of fellow passengers?
updated 4:14 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Ask any teen if they suffer from social media anxiety and they would probably tell you no. But the truth is getting "likes" and the fear of missing out are adding stress to teens' lives.
updated 9:13 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Many photographers have taken it upon themselves to document stillborn and terminal babies' precious moments after birth.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
As part of the insurance coverage offered to its female employees, Facebook is paying to freeze their eggs.
updated 2:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Amal Alamuddin was well-known in many important circles long before she snagged the world's most eligible bachelor. But Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney, according to her law firm's website.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Trends in young adult fiction have shifted from wizards to glittering vampires to bloodthirsty "Hunger Games" and now, to teens coping with illnesses and realistic issues.
updated 8:56 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Before he died this year, 14-year-old Martin Romero wanted to do something for his community.
updated 6:33 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
A 12-year-old girl called Dick's Sporting Goods out on its lack of female athletes in the Basketball 2014 catalog.
updated 12:36 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Before he was even born, Shane Michael Haley had already met the Philadelphia Phillies, been to the top of the Empire State Building and shared a cheesesteak with his parents.
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I read the initial comments from Microsoft's CEO on how women who don't ask for raises will receive "good karma."
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT