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Our Food, Our Bodies: Supporting our Teen Girls

When my first two children were born girls, I often wondered how they would feel about their bodies and their food when they were older, in the teen and pre-teen years, when we can be so susceptible and vulnerable to all sorts of pressures.  I kept those thoughts in the back of my head; I had a long time before we would think about those issues.

Well, the time is now.  My eldest turns 11 in a few weeks.  I have recently noticed a huge surge in her eating, and her sweet tooth has gotten sweeter.  Her junk food magnet has gotten stronger. And, her appetite has gotten bigger, much bigger.

When Sarah posted recently about school lunches, Sheryl mentioned some thoughts about her 14-year old high-schooler:

Something I worry about is the whole peer pressure/body image/I don't know what to call it that goes on with girls in her age group. My lean, athlete of a girl has always eaten big, hearty, (mostly) healthy meals, with meats and veg and fruit and grains and dairy. Just recently I noticed she checks herself and eats much less when she's with her peers, and tends to shy away from higher calorie and/or fat foods. 

Indeed, I have started to notice that my big girl packs piddly lunches and comes home with a lot of it uneaten.  She goes on to state how "HONGRY" she is once home and will eat lots.  LOTS!  Often, she's so "hongry" that she'll devour food in mass quantity, almost eating like an animal.  If she's so hungry, what is it that keeps her from eating more at school?  Does she have too little time now in middle school to eat?  Is her food too complicated to eat (too much utensil food)?  Or, is it embarrassing to eat?  Is it better to just hang out?

I rode my own roller coaster with food.  Always an athlete, my appetite was always huge.  I recall being able to eat a whole pizza by myself when I was ramping up on calories in my early growth spurt.  But, I hit a point where body image started to play a part, wanting to always stay svelte.  I recall being able to eat a whole cake.  I also recall being able to then regurgitate it all out into the toilet.  That was a dark, confusing time.

Never wanting to support an unhealthy approach to food, we have spent the past decade encouraging our girl to eat a variety of healthy foods.  We have offered treats on a regular, but not daily, basis.  We have learned about ingredients in our foods.  We have sat down for mealtimes, where we all eat a balanced plate.  We try not to pressure.

What is your approach to food with your girls?  How do you discuss it at home?  Books to suggest for girls in the 10-20 year old range that might offer them support and guidance when it comes to food and body?

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My daughter is an older teen than yours and starting in middle school she stopped eating lunch because there is peer pressure not to eat. Only fat girls eat lunch is what my daughter was told and she internalized it despite our best efforts. I try and make sure she always eats breakfast and provide filling wholesome things like oatmeal with fruit. After school she is famished as well and so I keep lots of nutritious easy things for her to nosh on. I do make her keep a Luna bar in her bag and she'll eat those sometimes especially when she has an exam in the afternoon and worries about low blood sugar making her groggy. I am glad she eats morning and evening as she has many friends who hardly do that. Many of her friends have declared themselves vegan but what they really are is highly restrictive eaters because of weight and vegan sounds healthier and more socially acceptable. Many of their mothers actively or tacitly support this behavior and highly restrict intake in their homes. There are some girls my daughter will no longer spend the night with since she comes home starving since the mothers shame eating or restrict food in their homes to the point where she's hungry. It's a complicated mess.

This is really interesting, especially for a parent of a soon-to-be middle schooler. Is there any organization that can give presentations about healthy eating, particularly to the girls? Has there been any effort at the schools to address this issue?

I've noticed its not cool to buy lunch or carry lunch in high school. It doesn't help that many female teachers are eating chips and a diet soda for lunch.. even here in the grand, green PDX. I insist my teen have a great breakfast. She has a heavy, good for you snack when she gets home and a nutritious dinner with the family. So she's eating enough, just not during school hours.

They have all heard about healthy eating but peer pressure is greater than any lecture. For a while I packed a lunch every day but soon realized that she threw it away so I stopped. She just took it to appease me and no intention of eating it.

I have a little girl, a four year-old. One thing I'm aware of is how often other moms, my buddies, will talk about their weight, the weight of others, how much they want to lose, etc. right in front of our daughters. The grandmas can be bad about this too--one is always "dieting" the other feels superior to middle America because she is not fat. They also talk about this right in front of my daughter. I've had to step in a few times. Body image starts young, especially in little girls. I think it is really important for women to find other things to talk about when impressionable kids are nearby. I don't ever mention my weight or insecurities in front of my daughter. I don't weigh myself in front of her either. Even if it is not entirely true, I want her to think I like my body the way it is and seek a healthy diet and lifestyle, not as a way to look good, but as a way to enable myself to live a fulfilling life, play with her and her brother, and live to see her grow.

I think your post is spot on EE's mom.

If you are constantly ingesting these foods, changing to whole grains and other complex carbohydrates will aid you to have more power while feeding on less. Good blog post.

I just recently read a book by Ellyn Sater (http://www.ellynsatter.com/how-to-eat-i-55.html) and was blown away by the simplicity of it all while acknowledging how complicated it can all be. I would suggest reading her stuff to any parent of any age.

I think we as moms also need to be careful about not only what we say, but what we do or don't do....not getting into bathing suits or not going swimming because of our own negative body image sounds a powerful message without saying a word. There is a great book called The Body Project about womens body image in America. This isn't really a teen read but is a great one for parents. I also think being aware of and stopping body bashing within our small groups of friends is so important. It happens so easily and I at least can quickly fall into complaining about my arms or tummy or age spots then listen a s a friend complains about her "trouble" spots. I don't do this in front of my daughter but ever since someone told me that they stopped body bashing all together I have been trying to do the same and it does feel good to push back in my own way against the never-ending onslaught of messages about thinness and how we "should" look. Also meant to say that I have heard a lot of teen girls talk about the pressure not to eat at school. I find that shocking and so incredibly sad. I do think we should talk to school principals and counselors about resources to address this. One last note....Dove beauty campaign is great as is the stuff by Tri Delt. Thanks for great post

I've never shown my daughter any sort of body hate. In fact, I often compliment myself and talk about my great shoulders or my strong legs. I'm a lovely round size 12.. if I can love my body, why can't you love yours? The self-loathing has got to stop somewhere. For my girl and myself, it stops with us.

http://www.oneangrygirl.net/order.html

While we can be powerful influences on our kids it is folly to discount media/peer influence. They are bombarded with images that present ideals of beauty and are surrounded by peers and with whom they seek acceptance. We can continue to offer positive counter messages but I don't think we should overestimate our sway over their opinions at this stage. But by continually discussing it we are also making it a focus and potentially a point of conflict and so it become a no win scenario. We have always had what I thought was a healthy dynamic around food with lots of fresh ingredients cooked at home with a focus on family meals, sustainability, local eating...yadda, yadda and when I started to try and influence my daughter about these things she responded by asking why I was so obsessed with food. It was an interesting perspective. I provide healthy options, make sure she eats in the evening and otherwise I butt out since my focus was making it into something even bigger and giving it the potential to become a source of powerful rebellious energy.

I came on here to recommend Ellyn Satter too! Great books, all around. I don't have a teen yet, but I'm sure Ellyn has something to say about how to handle these situations!

I'm the Sheryl who originally posted that comment--many thanks for discussing this in more depth!

When I was a teenager (especially high school), we never ate lunch. I remember whole periods of time when I would just drink a grape juice from the vending machine for lunch. I think I also tried dexatrim to lose weight (meanwhile I was very thin at 125 pounds and 5'8" and active). It's all kind of vague and fuzzy.

My struggles with my body and self-image continue to this day (42 years old!). At a good 20 pounds overweight, I am actively working to take off the weight through weight watchers. But, I've recognized that no matter how big or small I am, I'm never happy with my body. That's what I'm really trying to change and don't want to pass on to my 7 year old daughter!

I fear for her future self-image. She is skinny and active and eats healthy food with some snack and treats thrown in. I never talk about my own body issues and only refer to food in the context of health and balance. She sees me running and swimming and riding my bike and we talk about how strong I am.

At some point, though, she will become more aware of my size and her growing size and she may become self-conscious. I think it's hard for teen girls because the pressures are great and they grow and change so fast, it's easy to believe they are getting "fat" when they're really just developing into women!

I guess I don't have anything to add. Just wanted to share.

My husband and I do shush our parents/other people if they start to talk about weight, food (in the context of "bad"), or diets. It's the least we can do!

so true that unspoken concerns come across clearly to our kids! when my daughter was just 18 months old, i watched her walk to the full length mirror, have a good look, then turn and look back over her shoulder for the rear view. i realized that i never looked in the mirror without also checking to see how my butt looks in whatever i was wearing. i stopped then and there. i'll still look when i'm alone in my room, but had to retrain myself not to look back over my shoulder and grimace - at least while my kids are watching.

I was a competitive gymnast throughout school and struggled with weight and body image issues as the result of coaches who gave out horrible, backwater eating tips (e.g. don't eat bananas because they are the fruit with the most calories and how to not drink water before weigh-in. No joke. I could go on.)

When I was coaching as a young woman in college and post-collegiate, I asked a nutritionist to come talk to girls (as young as 3rd grade) and their parents about how to eat healthy for your sport. Partly to start a positive body image conversation. Partly to empower the girls and their parents. And partly to prevent their parents from sending them to practice with a stomach full of milk & cereal :)

I guess my point is to start the conversation early so it de-mystifies food. You'd be surprised at how many moms told me after our food seminars that daughters as young as 8 understood the concept and were asking for the "right" foods pre- and post-workout. Starting the conversation when the reach middle school might be a bit on the late curve.

I have two wee girls of my own so I am sure my theories will be put to the test though!

My heart goes out to all the mommas trying to navigate the peer pressure with daughters not eating at school. Unbelievable.

Yikes Sripes! I have a four year old who for the last two weeks refuses to eat dinner with the family, but will go and eat it once we are done.
This is most likely due to the fact that her papa thinks that children should learn to use the right fork and ask to be excused -- and her mama thinks that food should be fun, and its OK (at home) if it gets on their faces or even in their hair. I just hope that our different approach to mealtime is not creating a future food issue!

I think we influence up to a certain point, then peers influence. In middle school, mine lost a lot if weight due to not eating lunch. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and she eats junk foood and seafood as a pescatarian, nary a veggie. Being a fat-posiive household has made things difficult because our society doesnt separate what you eat from what your size is. I know fat vegans, and would be happier if the kid actually ate the veggies I buy, but I also know if I focus on that she will rebel and internalize it as fat-phobic. I love my body nearly all the time and think that I am beautiful and run around nekkid. And I think that helps. It seems ingrained in us to be fat-phobic. And middle school is hell.

I love these comments - many great things to consider as we pass on our own self-image issues to our children. I have a brand new baby girl and have not thought about these things yet, though I am sure I will obsess about it as she turns 2 to 4 (as I saw a niece become so GIRLIE at that age - all about dresses and jewelery and being "pretty" at that age).
But I also have a 4 year old boy whose perspective on his own body image I have never even considered... All these suggestions are great but should also be considered around our young boys as they develop opinions about themselves and those around them. Any comments on boys? Thanks!!

M.. I was careful around my son,too. I don't want him to believe that all women hate their bodies. He knows I find my body a beautiful and useful tool for living life. We did the Oneonta gorge scramble recently and I got my size 14 self up and over that log jam just like it was any other day. Go me!

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