Ep 189: Boys’ Hidden Body Issues

Charlotte Markey joins us to discuss why market-driven media is toxic for teen body image, and how we can strike up important conversations about  body positivity with our teens.

If you've enjoyed Talking to Teens, we'd love if you could leave us a five-star rating, and if you have time, a review! 

Full show notes

­­For kids growing up in the social media age, comparison is a constant struggle. Teens are bombarded 24/7 by influencers who post pictures of their unrealistic lives and seemingly perfect bodies–making teens feel like they’ll never measure up. This can cause both young men and women to constantly scrutinize their appearance, to the point of developing eating disorders or facing serious damage to their mental health! Although body image may seem like an afterthought to some adults, it’s a seriously significant part of young people’s lives that can even yield potentially dangerous outcomes.
Luckily, there are some things we can do to protect teens from the pressure to have a perfect body–and it starts with communication in our homes. Normalizing talk about body issues can do wonders for teens, especially those who feel like they’re struggling with it all alone. If we can guide them to become more conscious and critical about what they see online, we can help them learn to love themselves and their bodies unconditionally!
To help us get the conversation started, we’re talking to Charlotte Markey, author of Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys and The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless. Charlotte is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and a leading expert on body image research. She’s studied everything from weight management to eating disorders, and is the perfect person to talk to about how we can encourage teen body positivity!
In our interview, Charlotte explains what body positivity truly feels like, and how we can encourage teens to strive for self-acceptance. Plus, we’re talking all about online influencers, and how teens can defend themselves against the damaging messages of a market-driven media.
The Path to Body Positivity
Before we can really talk about having a positive body image, we’ve got to get to the bottom of what “body image” really means, says Charlotte. She explains that it’s greater than just wanting to be fat or skinny, have the perfect chest or defined features. It’s a much more encompassing feeling that includes being active, happy, well-rested and mentally sound. It’s largely related to mental health, says Charlotte, and takes into account how we feel, not just how we look.
This means feeling more than just neutral about our bodies, Charlotte explains. Body neutrality is ok, she says,  but the goal is for us to be happy in our own skin. If teens can learn to have unconditional love and acceptance for their bodies, they’ll be able to free themselves from constant body negativity. Instead, they can dedicate that energy to other things like educating themselves, nurturing their relationships, and helping those in need! In the episode, Charlotte emphasizes how this unconditional love starts with parents opening up the conversation about body image at home.
But how can we actually get teens talking about body positivity? In our interview, Charlotte and I dive into why teens often don’t like to discuss their bodies. This is especially true for young men, who are typically taught to be strong and hold in negative feelings. Not to mention that our kids are two years into a pandemic, meaning they haven’t exactly had the easiest time connecting with peers over anything–especially body size! Having this conversation is certainly necessary, but it won’t be easy, Charlotte says.

Don’t fear, however, because Charlotte is giving you some helpful tips for striking up this talk with your teens.
Creating a Conversation Around Body Image
So how can we start this critical conversation around body image when teens would rather lock themselves in their rooms? Charlotte recommends starting with being vulnerable yourself. Although we adults aren’t always on social media as much as kids, we’re still being affected everyday by online messaging! We might have our own issues with comparison, or feel anxious about the effects of aging on our bodies. If we can help kids understand that these concerns are totally normal, they might feel more comfortable opening up to talk about their own body.
Charlotte suggests asking lots of questions instead of giving kids a lecture. This can be especially useful if you notice a teen commenting on their own body or someone else’s. Prompting teens to explain their feelings further or think more critically about their comment might help them dig deeper and understand the origin of their judgements about the way bodies look! This can be a great first step to encouraging kids to challenge the things they see online.
 Sometimes, kids just don’t want to listen to their parents. If this is the case for you and your kid, Charlotte suggests looping in another resource to get kids the help they need. If your teen is really struggling with body image issues, a trained counselor might be the best move. For teens who do better processing things on their own, there are some helpful websites that you can direct them to–or you can give them good old-fashioned books, like the ones Charlotte has published!
No matter how much work they do, kids are still going to be faced with the media saturated world they live in­. But if we can develop an understanding about how these online forces affect teens' well-being, we can prevent social media from doing too much serious damage.

The Importance of Media Literacy

Although social media can be damaging, there are ways we can mitigate its effects on teens. The first step is to encourage teens to be more critical of what they see online. Teens need to know that the pictures of influencers on their Instagram feed are not only highly edited, but depict unrealistic bodies! Models and online personalities are usually paid to look good, meaning they put more time, money and effort into having the perfect image than the rest of us could likely ever manage!
When teens see these images, they start to immediately compare themselves to the person on the screen–and who could blame them? These apps are set up to run on the capitalization of beauty, explains Charlotte. When teens compare themselves, the app can sell them more beauty or fitness products. Cosmetic companies make money, the app makes money…but your teen is left feeling worse than ever. This market-driven social media ecosystem is definitely harmful for young minds and bodies, Charlotte explains.
Charlotte recommends reminding teens that they have the power to keep themselves from falling for this messaging. Our brains are hard-wired to compare us to others, but ultimately, we’re in control–meaning it doesn’t have to happen! Teens can unfollow those who make them feel bad, or choose to follow others who make them feel more comfortable in their own skin. Charlotte explains that this can sometimes be hard for kids to do, but with some encouragement, they’re more likely to take these steps towards a positive body image.

In the Episode…

It was eye-opening to talk to Charlotte about helping teens develop body positivity! On top of the topics discussed above, we also discussed:
  • Why teens should stay away from supplements
  • How to keep kids from retouching their own pictures
  • Why we can’t always control our body size
  • How peers can affect teen’s body image
Thanks for listening! If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more great resources about body image on Charlotte’s websites, bodyimageforboys.com and bodyimageforgirls.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

Follow us on Social Media! We're @talkingtoteens on Instagram and TikTok

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Charlotte Markey
Charlotte Markey
Author: The Body Image Book for Girls; The Body Image Book for Boys; Professor @Rutgers U;Psychologist; Eating/Body Image Scientist; Body Talk Substack; she/her
Ep 189: Boys’ Hidden Body Issues
Broadcast by