Editor’s note: Katie Hurley, author of No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist based in Los Angeles. She specializes in working with tweens, teens and young adults.
“I’ve got a few spots for anyone who wants to lose 20 pounds by the holidays! No diets, exercise or cravings!”
Ads for diet and exercise programs like this began popping up on my social media feeds in early October, often accompanied by photos of women pushing shopping carts full of Halloween candy to represent the weight they no longer carry.
Whether it’s intermittent fasting or “cheat days,” food culture is proliferating and growing particularly among young women and girls, a demographic that may be particularly vulnerable to social pressures and misinformation.
The fact that food culture is targeting adult women across social media is bad enough, but messages like this are seeping through to tweens and teens, too. (And let’s face it, a lot of it is aimed squarely at young people, too.) It couldn’t be a worse time: Since the pandemic began, there has been a significant rise in eating disorders, particularly among adolescent girls.
“My mom is obsessed with losing tons of weight on her Facebook friends without dieting (to see). Is this even real?” The question came from a teenage girl, who later revealed she was considering hiring a health coach to help her eat “healthier” after watching her mum overhaul her diet . Unfortunately, the coaching she fell victim to is part of a multi-level marketing brand that promotes rapid weight loss through calorie restriction and buying expensive meal replacements.
is it real Yes. is it healthy Unlikely, especially for a growing teenager.
Later that week, another teenage customer asked about a clean eating movement she’s following on Pinterest. She had read that a strict clean vegan diet was better for both her and the environment, and assumed that was true because the pinned article took her to a health coaching blog. It seemed legitimate. However, a deep dive into the blogger’s testimonials revealed that the clean eating practices they shared weren’t actually developed by a nutritionist.
And another teen who just spent a week participating in the What I Eat In A Day challenge — a video trending on TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms that has users documenting the foods they eat in a particular Consume period – told me she decided to temporarily mute her social media accounts. Why? Because the time she spent restricting her eating while pretending to feel full left her exhausted and unhappy. She spotted the trend on TikTok and thought it might help her develop healthier eating habits, but became fixated on calorie intake instead. Still, she didn’t want her friends to see that she actually felt terrible about the challenge after spending a full week promoting it.
Each week, I answer numerous questions from tweens and teens about the food culture they encounter online, in the world, and sometimes even in their own homes. But as we enter the winter holiday season, the pressures of shame-based food culture, often packaged with toxic positivity to appear encouraging, mount.
“As we approach the holidays, food culture is in the air, as are lights and music, and it’s certainly on social media,” said Dr. Hina Talib, a specialist in adolescent medicine and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “It’s so ubiquitous that even if it’s not aimed at teenagers, they pick it up by flipping through it or hearing parents talk about it.”
Social media isn’t the only place young people encounter harmful news about body image and weight loss. Teens are inundated with content on so-called “healthy eating” on TV and in popular culture, at school and during extracurricular or social activities, at home and in public spaces like malls or grocery stores—and even in restaurants.
Instead of learning how to eat to strengthen your body and brain, today’s teenagers are getting the message that “clean eating,” to name just one example of a potentially problematic diet trend, leads to a better body — and in a broader sense to a growth happiness. Diets that cut out all carbohydrates, dairy, gluten, and meat-based proteins are popular among teenagers. However, this mindset can trigger food anxiety, obsessive checking of food labels, and dangerous calorie restrictions.
Indeed, an obsessive focus on weight loss, muscle building, and improving overall looks runs counter to what teens need in order to grow at a healthy pace.
“Teens and tweens are growing into their adult bodies, and that growth requires weight gain,” said Oona Hanson, a Los Angeles-based parenting coach. “Weight gain is not only normal, it is essential for adolescent health.”
The good news in all of this is that parents can play an active role in helping teens develop a more emotionally healthy narrative about their eating habits. “Parents often feel helpless in the face of TikTokers, peer pressure, or a broader food culture, but it’s important to remember: Parents are influencers, too,” Hanson said. What we say and do matters to our teenagers.
Take a moment to think about your own eating habits. Adolescents tend to imitate what they see, even if they don’t talk about it.
Parents and caregivers can model a healthy relationship with food by enjoying a wide variety of food choices and trying new family meal recipes. During the holiday season, when many celebrations involve gathering around the table, take the opportunity to model shared connections. “The holidays are a great time to remember that food nourishes us in ways that could never be captured on a nutrition label,” said Hanson.
The holiday season is filled with opportunities to gather, celebrate, and make memories with friends and loved ones, but these moments can create anxiety when it comes to food shame.
When extended families gather for holiday celebrations, it’s common for people to comment on how others look or have changed since they last met. While this is usually done with good intentions, it can be uncomfortable or annoying for tweens and teens.
“It’s normal for young people going through puberty or going through physical changes to feel embarrassed or self-critical. Having someone say ‘You have evolved’ is not a welcome part of conversations,” Talib warned.
Talib suggests practicing comebacks and subject changes beforehand. Role-play answers like “We’re not talking about bodies” or “We’d rather focus on all the things we’ve accomplished this year.” And make sure to check in and make room for your tween or teen when the time comes, to share feelings of hurt and resentment at such comments.
Open and honest communication is always the gold standard when it comes to helping tweens and teens process the messages and behaviors they internalize. When families talk about what they see and hear online, on podcasts, on TV, and in print, they normalize the critical thinking process — and it can be a really great bond between parents and teens.
“Teaching media literacy is a helpful way to shape the conversation,” says Talib. “Speak openly about it.”
She suggests asking the following questions when discussing people’s messages about food culture:
● Who are they?
● What do you think her perspective is?
● What do you think their message is?
● Is it a medical professional or is he trying to sell you something?
● Are you promoting a fitness program or nutritional supplement that you are marketing?
Talking about it with tweens and teens throughout the season — and at all times — brings a taboo topic to the fore and makes it easier for your kids to share their inner thoughts with you.