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![/restrict]
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: Talk to me a little bit. What’s going on? You’ve got a book that I’ve gone through here on body image for boys. Why do you think this is an important topic and what inspired you to write a book about it?
Charlotte: Yeah, so I wrote The Body Image Book for Girls a couple years ago, and the plan really was always to write a book for boys also. Most people feel like it makes sense or is more obvious, the book for girls, and I appreciate that. I didn’t a hundred percent see it that way. I guess I think that there are some similar and some different issues that boys and girls experience growing up, and I really wanted to delve into them for boys as well, so I did. The girls book sold enough that they let me write another one.
Charlotte: So, you just keep running with it.
Andy: That’s cool. I’m curious, what was the big things from the girls book that were interesting to people, and what did you take from that experience of writing that book to then put into this book?
Charlotte: From the girls book, I got a lot of positive feedback about the personal stories. People like not just the actual antidotes and what people were sharing, but just sort of normalizing talking about… I mean, really what it comes down to is mental health struggles, right? Sort of those voices in your head that I think most of us have, and we don’t talk about a lot, because you don’t want to sound crazy. So you don’t want to express a self-doubt or what you do to cope with that self-doubt. I got a lot of positive feedback from the girls book about that and just normalizing conversations, normalizing stressors that young people experience. I think that, if anything, I tried to do more of that then in the boys book, because I think it’s even more important for boys, that boys grow up without the same socialization, unfortunately, as girls.
Charlotte: Girls, they’re more comfortable talking about their feelings and talking about health issues. Even my own son, when I talk to him, he’s just kind of like, “Mom, this is weird. What are you talking about?” I mean, I’m also his mom, so there’s that piece of it.
Andy: That’s true.
Charlotte: But I’ve tried really hard to raise my kids so that they can talk openly, and they know I’m a psychologist, and they know what I do for a living, and they know I will not be shocked by their adolescent experiences given what I do for a living. Yet, still I think that girls are just more comfortable talking and being more verbal, and we’ve just normalized that.
Charlotte: Then what happens for boys? That’s what worries me. What happens for boys when they are struggling, if they feel like they have no one to talk to or it’s not okay? It’s not cool, it’s not manly.
Andy: Yeah, you’ve got to be tough.
Charlotte: Yeah. I mean, the messages are pretty clear, right? You’ve got to be tough, better to say too little than too much, it seems like. You’ve got to have muscles, you’re in charge. That’s a lot of pressure and especially for kids right now. My own two teenagers have experienced a lot of their adolescence during the pandemic, so that’s been a whole nother layer of stress and mental health stuff to deal with for a lot of kids. That’s rough. Two years out of my adult life sucks, but two years when you’re 12, a lot of stuff going on, and to not have sort of the normal go to school, be with your friends, hang out with girls, boys, whatever, a lot of that disappeared.
Andy: So let me just take a little step back here. What is body image exactly? Should we even care about it? Shouldn’t we just try and just not even think about body image and just not even worry about it at all?
Charlotte: Most body image researchers will say body image is defined as your thoughts and feelings about your body, and that’s a fine definition, but I think it’s also kind of incomplete, because it makes it sound like this superficial construct. It’s just how concerned with your appearance are you in this superficial way? When really, the research suggests that it kind of comes down to more how do you feel about yourself? Then that affects all different sorts of behaviors you may or may not engage in. How you eat, whether or not you exercise, your sleep, your sexual behaviors even. It affects your interpersonal relationships, and it’s just so strongly related to other aspects of mental health. Depression, anxiety, and of course eating disorders.
Charlotte: Everyone has a body image. Everyone has this sense of self, of how they feel within their physical selves. So yeah, I think we need to talk about it. We need to understand it. We need to think about how to help young people grow up feeling good about themselves. I think what you were alluding to for a moment, this what if we just don’t think about it issue does get a lot of attention. Sometimes we call that body neutrality. The idea of can I be just be content accepting, not give this mental space? There’s a lot to be said for that, but for most people, they have to do work to get to that point. It’s not like you can just shut it down.
Andy: Just turn it off, stop it.
Charlotte: It’s not like you can just turn it off. It’s you kind of have to accept that this is this thing that we all have, and then what do you do with that? Then do you want to be sort of neutral? Are you happy with this sort of content, Zen-ness of I’m just not going to worry about some of this. For some people that’s enough I think. As a psychologist, that’s kind of when we say you’re not depressed. That’s good to not be depressed, right?
Andy: Yeah, right.
Charlotte: But as a psychologist, I want people to actually be happy. I think that’s a better goal. So neutrality is great, just like not being depressed is great.
Andy: Okay, but what’s the happy equivalent? Is that body positivity?
Charlotte: Yeah, I think so.
Andy: What’s that look like?
Charlotte: Body positivity looks like feeling really comfortable in your skin, feeling appreciative of your body. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re just thinking about how you look. It means that you enjoy being active, you think about that. I try to practice body positivity, I’m a runner, and when I run, I try to think isn’t this great that I can do this? I’m in my late forties now and I can still do this, and I’m out and about. I’m with friends and staying in shape. So kind of focusing on those issues is part of body positivity, and for some people it’s an aesthetic expression too, and that’s all right. It’s getting dressed up, trying to look good and not being stressed by that, but enjoying that, and that’s okay.
Andy: So are there anything that parents can do to help teenagers develop more body positivity? Especially because I think it’s just such a hard time when your body is just changing so much, it’s a moving target. Just when you start getting kind of positive, then something else is changing and now you have something else to sort of feel embarrassed about or inadequate for. Then the norms are changing, and then other people are maturing faster than you. There’s so much coming at you. It’s hard enough as an adult to feel a sense of positivity, but I mean, wow, what can we do for teenagers?
Charlotte: You kind of nailed it there, though. It’s things are always changing. It’s we have these appearance ideals that we all see, and they’re basically of people who are 20.
Charlotte: Right? We’re actually only 20 for one year of our life.
Charlotte: So, as a younger person, you can aspire to that, but like you said, your body’s changing. Then the rest of us, if we don’t have a whole crew of people helping us with our appearance like celebrities do, then 20 comes and goes. Then we’re getting older, then other crap happens. So I think it’s important to talk about the fact that our bodies are always changing. That’s part of life. This idea that there’s this static perfection we can aim for is just an illusion.
Andy: Yeah, and just hold onto it.
Charlotte: It’s a moment. That’s just not the way this works, so I think it’s important to talk about it’s just normal. Our bodies change, we want to try to take good care of them, we want to try to eat sort of decent. Doesn’t have to be perfect. We want to try to be active/ again, perfection is not the goal. Get enough sleep, manage stress. Just try to take good care of yourself. You get this one body for your whole life.
Charlotte: In school, what do kids get when it comes to health education? They get a lot of don’t do drugs, and don’t have sex, or be careful if you do maybe, but they don’t get a lot of you’ve got to take care of this place where you reside as a human being. So I think as parents, we have to really focus on those messages more, and also model that as well as we can. Actually try to live that as best we can, where we’re not being perfectly healthy, that’s also psychological often, but just attending to these things, and communicating about them, and also being really accepting of kids.
Charlotte: I think that sense of unconditional love and acceptance from parents and from caregivers just really goes far. So then if they’re feeling freaked out because they have a lot of hair under their arms all of a sudden, hopefully, yeah, they’re going to feel weird about that. That’s normal to feel weird about that, but hopefully if they know that’s normal. They know that’s normal, they’ve heard that’s normal. They know their parents don’t care, they love them no matter what. That helps. It doesn’t solve everything, but it helps.
Andy: You were talking about this ideal that we have, the 20-year-old body that we all want. I guess I feel like it’s even more than that, because it’s a fiction. Well, I mean, I used to be in the modeling industry and it’s you work out all the time and you’re super focused on constantly taking care of your appearance in a way that just normal people can’t. Then they take pictures of you and then they Photoshop them, and then the way they light them. It’s not even just the fact that it’s a 20-year-old person that we can only be for a second, it’s an illusion of a superhuman level that we can never attain. I wonder just how we should be more realistic, or how we can help teenagers be more realistic, especially with social media and so many messages of perfection and doctored body imagery. Is there any chance to have healthy aspirations, or healthy ideas or goals for what you should be?
Charlotte: I mean, it’s really tricky. I think that one of the sort of broad issues that we can do as adults in talking with kids is try to talk about media literacy, and what you’re seeing, like you said, has gone through these different steps. First you’re starting with a person who’s exceptional in a variety of ways, right?
Andy: Right. They scour the world and find…
Charlotte: Right. These top 10 people, and then on top of that their job is to look good, so they can spend a lot more time than I would argue any of us should on their appearance. Then there’s all this Photoshopping, and editing, and presentation in a way that just is super unrealistic. Kids, interestingly, get some of this because they do it to their own pictures.
Andy: Yeah, right.
Charlotte: So there’s actually even this one study that came out a few years ago, that showed that people who had greater familiarity, like kids, with photo editing stuff or whatever, they were somewhat less affected by some of these media images because they had done it themselves. Isn’t that funny?
Andy: I love that. Yep, that makes so much sense and then you start to see pictures and you’re like, “Oh, I know what they did there. I see what’s going on.”
Charlotte: “I know what filter that is,” or whatever.
Andy: Right, right, right. “Oh, look at that blurring in the background. No, I see what’s happening there.” Yeah.
Charlotte: Yeah, and I kind of see this with my son, who’s 16, and he’s not on social media a ton, but there was something I needed for work and I wanted to kind of get rid of part of the picture or whatever. I was like, “Can you do this?” He was like, “Oh yeah, this is easy.” He was like, “Here you go.” That would have taken me hours to sort through, because I don’t do that. I didn’t grow up with that technology.
Charlotte: It’ll be really interesting to see, as more young people grow up with the technology, if some of the imagery affects them in the same way. We don’t really know yet for sure aside from that study, I mentioned. It’s not just the modeling industry or advertising that has the technology. Everyone does now.
Charlotte: In theory. I don’t apparently. But in theory. If you are under 25 or something, I guess you can probably figure this stuff out pretty quickly. So that helps.
Andy: It’s the little Wizard of Oz effect a little bit. Once you see the man behind the curtain, you start to kind of realize how much of this is an illusion. That’s cool. I like that.
Charlotte: Yeah. I mean, the other thing that’s important to remind kids about is that how you look, people value that. You can’t completely lie to them about that, I think because they know better. It’s also just really one part of who you are. This is not the most important or the most interesting thing about you probably. What are your other interests? Who else are you as a person? We want to talk more about that. We want to nurture those other interests, those other passions. We also know to a certain extent that how we view someone’s appearance is kind of subjective. If we talk to someone and they just seem really interesting, or cool, or passionate about something, they have a great talent, they become so much more attractive to us.
Andy: Yeah. Totally.
Charlotte: These things are not, you don’t have to really separate them. By nurturing other passions and talents we can actually, in some ways, contribute to the attractiveness of young people. Again, I think it’s really important to say, “This is just one part of who you are.” Social media and the media can have this power over us because we look at it and the way our brains work is we immediately start to compare ourselves. If we looked at whatever Instagram and our first response was oh, she looks really great. I’m so happy for her. That’s wonderful. If that’s what we did, it wouldn’t have a negative effect. We’d just be happy all the time. Everyone looks great.
Charlotte: But what we do is we look and we think she looks really great. Crap, why don’t I look like that? Or she’s doing whatever, why is my life less glamorous? This is just kind of how our brains work. We use comparison because it provides valuable information. But once we know that, that’s what our brain is kind of almost hardwired to do, then we can start to work with it. So if you look and you catch yourself doing that, you can kind of shut it off and be like, well, but of course they posted that picture because they look good, or because they’re doing something fun, or the lighting.
Charlotte: It’s when you can view these things and not immediately then go to this place of personal despair or something, then it just becomes much less powerful and teenagers can start to figure this out. Kids can be pretty good at this actually, at realizing it’s either unrealistic or what effect it’s having on them, but they kind of need to be guided often, they need to be brought there. They’re not going to do it on their necessarily. None of us are.
Andy: No. Right. So how do we sort of guide them there?
Charlotte: I mean, I think you got to talk to them about it and this is what media literacy is. You got to explain kind of what we’ve been just talking about. That you can look at these images and you can let them make you feel bad or you can choose not to. If you can’t make yourself kind of detach in that way and say this isn’t real, or this isn’t who I am or whatever, then the great thing in some ways about social media in particular is you can get rid of some of those people in your life.
Andy: You don’t have to follow that person.
Charlotte: No. Kids sometimes need to be reminded of that. They forget you’re in charge. You can just unload this, get rid of this.
Charlotte: So I think that’s a really important lesson and I’ve done this with my own kids. I’m like, “Why are you following this celebrity? What is this? Why don’t you follow more interesting people? It’s kind of boring.” They’re going to be like, “Oh you’re just so lame. You’re so lame.” But just because they’re rolling their eyes at you… In fact, I forget another psychologist, I think Lisa Damour often says this, “If they roll their eyes at you, that means they listened.”
Andy: Yeah. It got in there.
Charlotte: Right. So we always think that’s bad when kids are giving us those looks. It’s not entirely bad. It means they actually heard us.
Andy: They’re listening. Yeah. Yeah. Right.
Charlotte: But they don’t always want to admit that oh you’re right. This is just normal parent child sort of dynamics. They’re not going to always admit that, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say it. Say it, let them roll their eyes. Who cares? It might get in. They might get rid of those people on their news feeds or whatever.
Andy: Well, so much of being a teenager is having to figure things out for yourself or feel like you at least sort of, yeah. I’ll think about it. Then really considering it and sort of coming to your own decision about things, instead of just accepting what other people tell you, especially your parents. It’s actually helpful as a parent to be sort of on the journey with them, and thinking about your own body image and what issues are you dealing with right now with what you’re going through in your body and how are the people that you are following on social media influencing your thoughts about that? Noticing things like that, that don’t feel like you’re saying oh hey, well all the kid, these days are doing this and that’s not healthy.
Andy: But like you’re saying, hey no I noticed something the other day just when I was on social media and I started blah, blah, blah. I noticed, I was comparing myself to this person that I’m following. Something that’s real to you and that doesn’t feel like a lecture because it is actually real and authentic and something a little vulnerable about something that you really are genuinely struggling with in terms of your own body image. I just think that kind of a conversation is so much more powerful than anything that feels like a lecture where you’re saying, “Hey, we need to talk about your blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Andy: Because modeling is so powerful, but also it does get in and they will hear you and if you’re talking about yourself, then it gives them that one sort of little degree of separation where they can then say, oh, I kind of do that too sometimes. Then they can come to the realization on their own and internalize it themselves. When we can allow that to happen, then it can be a lot more powerful, I think, than sort of us pointing out notice what you’re doing, do you see that?
Charlotte: No. I mean, I think that strategy is excellent. There’s so much about this, I think, a lot of us as adults are still working through, and can figure out and it’s great. I think it’s really good when kids see that yeah, some of this is complicated. It’s hard. We’re still figuring it out. We can talk about it. Again, making it normal by just normalizing that social media’s new to adults too. So we’re figuring it out.
Charlotte: I think too asking them questions. Like you said, no one likes a lecture. That is how you can get them to tune out, but ask questions. Why do you think so and so is wearing that? Whatever comes up, sometimes there’s just something on television while you’re watching with your kid. Or just ask, I mean, this is the great thing about teenagers too, is that they are inherently more in touch with popular culture than most adults. So there start to be things, they’re not always super substantive things, but there starts to be all sorts of things they can teach us and that can be really fun, I think actually, to just sort of understand the musicians they’re into, or the movies they like. Whatever it is, just popular culture can be a really great way to connect with kids.
Charlotte: It’s also a good avenue for talking about some of this and it doesn’t hurt that a lot of celebrities these days… Yeah, I sound so old when I say it like that, but do talk about their own mental health, their own issues and sometimes that’s an avenue. I’ll say, “I was reading this news story, or I was watching the news or I saw this on Instagram about whoever it may be saying that they were in therapy or whatever. What do you think about that?” Usually they know this stuff before I do. I mean, they’re way more in touch.
Charlotte: I think you get a little bit of street cred if you can bring up something that’s going on in popular culture and even if you get it wrong, it’s still then they get to correct you and they like that too. So you don’t have to totally understand what’s going on. God knows I’m long past that I think at this point, but it’s fun. It’s fun to kind of learn this. It’s fun to remember what it was like to be a teenager and to be really into your favorite musician, or your favorite actor or actress. It’s fun to kind of relive some of that experience of your youth, but with the wisdom of age and then to try to make it a little bit easier for young people you care about now.[/restrict]
About Charlotte Markey
Charlotte Markey is the author of The Body Image Book for Boys and The Body Image Book for Girls.
Charlotte is a professor of Psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, where she is also the director of the Health Sciences Center. She also runs the Healthy Development Lab, where she works with students to research eating, weight, body image and health.
Her work has been published in numerous academic journals, and she has authored two other books: Smart People Don’t Diet and Body Positive. Her work has earned her various accolades including the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring, Rutgers University, Camden, in May 2021.