Conventional wisdom suggests that parents should sit their kids down before they are teenagers for “the talk.” The birds, the bees, relationships, and safe sex should all be on the agenda. When depicted in movies, parents are authoritative but embarrassed while their pre-teens appear mortified. The talks last for no longer than five minutes because neither of the parties involved can tolerate anything longer.
Although this approach to providing important health information to kids provides humorous, squirm-worthy material for movies, it shouldn’t be emulated in real life. It turns out that there’s extensive research on how to communicate with adolescents about important health issues that can guide parents’ approach. The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless does not cover all of the topics that a thorough discussion of sex should include nor does it provide the sort of graphic detail that a book about sex may provide. However, it does contain information about puberty, physical anatomy, media literacy, mental health, romantic relationships, sexual harassment, and, of course, our bodies and body image – topics that are equally important but often neglected in communications with young people. Thus, it seems that drawing on the research about how parents’ can effectively communicate about sexual health can inform parents’ (and other caregivers’ and caring others’) approaches to discussing body image with tween and teen girls.
Start early and often. Discussing something potentially awkward will only be made more awkward if it needs to be discussed because of your girl’s current experiences. The analogy to sex is relevant again. A conversation about sex may always be uncomfortable when adults and kids are involved, but will be made one hundred times more uncomfortable if it is a conversation about an imminent experience. Discussing sex hypothetically – as something that may happen at some point, someday – is easier. The same can be said of many body image issues. You can begin these discussions with your girl when she is five years old and wants her first Barbie doll by saying, “Barbies are fun to play with, but real women don’t look like Barbies.” In other words, talk about how unrealistic Barbies’ bodies (and all models’ bodies) are before your girl even accepts them as plausible, aspirational bodies. Talk about clothing choices (and why they matter) before your girl ever wants to wear a crop top or could possibly feel shamed when you mention that her shorts seem too short. Talk about make-up and why grooming practices shouldn’t occupy too much time and mental-space before they ever do.
Further, information does not need to be compiled into one lengthy, comprehensive lecture. This may actually be the worst way to deliver important information to your girl. A comment while driving in the car, watching a television show, or mentioning something relevant from your day is a much better way to establish open and comfortable communication about important issues.
Provide evidence-based resources. This is where my shameless sales pitch for The Body Image Book for Girls comes in. There is a lot of health information available online, on social media and elsewhere in popular culture that is not accurate. Sometimes it is easy to discern what is factual, evidence-based information and what is not; sometimes it is less clear. If health information is provided by a reputable organization (e.g., the World Health Organization) or someone with appropriate credentials and professional experience it is more likely to be accurate. It is important to check for appropriate credentials; even household names like Dr. Oz often speaks outside his expertise. It is also important to look for the evidence. Was a study mentioned? How many people were investigated? Was the research published in a reputable source?
When I wrote The Body Image Book for Girls, I drew on hundreds of studies about body image, eating behaviors, physical activity, and a variety of other health topics. In fact, you can refer to all of these research articles, books, and web links on my web page for the book. I believe that girls deserve to have the best information available to help them so that they truly can love themselves and grow up fearless.
Offer options. Ask your girl if she’d like to look over a book with you, talk about a topic raised by a movie or an encounter with a friend, or even email or text you a question. Providing options offers her some control over the discussion. Teenagers (and preteens) tend to not like to be told what to do and are apt to exert their independence, so before you jump feet first into a conversation about sexual harassment or even what bad news the latest fad diet is, ask your girl what she’s most comfortable with. (This is not to say that you should ask her if she’s comfortable talking with you; we can’t all be comfortable all the time.)
If the options you offer for a body image conversation (or conversations) don’t manage to engage your girl, leave The Body Image Book for Girls in her room or the space where she’s most likely to read. She may not want you to know that she’s interested in the topic, but I can guarantee that she is. You can always follow-up later and ask if she has any questions.
Effort counts. It’s ok to preface a conversation by saying, “I’m not sure how to say this, but it is important to me to try to discuss this with you.” No parent is an expert in everything and kids figure that out surprisingly fast. However, research indicates that parents’ communication with their kids about health issues does have an impact. One of the important messages you convey when you try to talk to your girl about her body image is that you care and you want to help her navigate terrain that can be stressful and complicated.
If you find your efforts go unrewarded (or unacknowledged), try asking questions.
“What do you think about what that celebrity/influencer/friend is wearing?”
“What have you learned about nutrition and healthy eating at school?”
“Who do you follow on social media and do they ever offer health advice?”
“Does your gym class include any education about the benefits of physical activity?”
“What gender differences do you notice when people talk about female sexuality versus male sexuality?”
The topics will likely evolve as your girl gets older and encounters new situations. For example, a first romantic relationship is a good time to bring up the importance of respecting your body and setting boundaries. Whatever approach you take, if your first pass at talking to your girl about any important health issue doesn’t go as you’d hoped, try again another day. It’s important not to be discouraged if your girl displays an apparent lack of interest in these topics. The analogy to sex applies again; you probably didn’t want to talk to your parents (or any adult) about sex when you were a teen and yet you did want the information.
There is not one right way to do this. There are so many things that we want to help girls prepare for as they become teens and adults. Most adults want to spare girls the mistakes they made and any hardships they experienced. But, of course, each girl is different and determining the best way to support your girl may be a process of trial and error. What may be most important is that you try to be a positive influence in your girls’ life and a person she knows she can always turn to.