A Heavy Burden – Raising Healthy Families in our Weight Obsessed Culture

Article Contributed by Former Staff of The Meadows Ranch – Deborah Russo, Psy.D., Dena Cabrera, Psy.D., & Amy Spahr, LCSW

Studies confirm the powerful influence our consumer culture has on imprinting norms of behavior. Family dynamics, biology, technology, and our powerful media contribute to shaping families in this Weight Obsessed Culture.

Family working on eating disorders in Weight Obsessed CultureHow do we help parents, caregivers and other leaders navigate the winds influencing our youth culture especially as it relates to weight-related and body image issues? This article highlights the factors that shape beliefs and attitudes toward our bodies.

It will offer ten ways to help families develop resilience and build protective factors encouraging positive and confident relationships with body and weight.

What we know

We have learned a great deal working with more than over 10,000 women and girls suffering from eating and anxiety disorders for the past 20 years. For instance, several things we know:

  1. Eating disorders including body image issues are complex and involve a myriad of interrelated contributing factors
  2. Physical perfection has no form and, therefore, can never be attained
  3. Popular media and marketing will never let you believe this
  4. Friends and family are too often the worst sounding board for negative thoughts about body image.

Countless girls and women in particular of various shapes and sizes have engaged in the fruitless pursuit of physical perfection.  This pursuit often begins in adolescence and persists throughout the entire lifetime.

Perfection in our culture is often viewed as taller/shorter, curvier/thinner, softer/toner, and lighter/darker than the individual.  However, these targets are often a reflection of the negative feelings we foster for our own appearance, and not defined by some measurable goal.  Dissatisfaction with physical appearance is a growing trend among both females and males and affecting younger ages.

Bedford and Johnson (2006) compared body image concerns in younger and older women and revealed no age-related differences in body dissatisfaction.  Similar findings were reported by Reel (2000) who discovered that although no significant differences existed between the various ages of women, the 40 to 59-year-old females reported the highest body dissatisfaction.

It’s not just about dieting

But where does all this start?  The influencing factors of weight-related and body image issues are complex.  Eating disorders and obesity are caused by many factors that interact with each other.

Individual characteristics, including genetics and temperament,  family factors, peer influences, community factors, and societal factors all may play various roles in causing weight-related issues and body dissatisfaction.  Despite the complicated influencing factors on where it all started, the consequences on the individual are profound.

mother and daughter in Weight Obsessed CultureNumerous research studies have confirmed that body dissatisfaction is closely linked to self-esteem in adolescents, more so than in adults.  Thus if a teen is struggling with body dissatisfaction, it may interfere with the development of one’s self-concept and sense of identity.

Regardless of our levels of sensitivity to our own imperfections, vulnerability to criticism increases during the developmental years as puberty blossoms both physical and emotional changes most rapidly.  The social constructs of the narrow standard of beauty most often projected confuses most children.

We often hear teen girls say, “Those images are living inside of me; how am I supposed to be feminine without being overly sexual?”, “How do I see my strengths apart from my looks?”

The Internalization of the fantasy ideal

The influence of the internalization of negative body images are magnified by visions of perfection seen on television and in print media and powerfully reinforced by role expectations, peer groups, and family members who are also dissatisfied with their own physical appearance.  For many people, these negative thoughts manifest as nothing more than fleeting reminders to exercise more often or to return to healthier eating patterns.

However, others will focus on these perceived flaws and exaggerate them until they no longer have a realistic view of their own body.  Left unchecked, this negative and inaccurate body image can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and even develop into an eating disorder.

The physical archetype to which we aspire can be formed at a very young age and evolve over time.  Our youth culture from childhood is exposed to unattainable models of physical beauty on television shows and in magazines.  We fail to recognize that this one-dimensional version of perfection can only be achieved with hours of make-up, perfectly tailored clothing, generous lighting, and carefully selected camera angles to conceal imperfections.

In the most blatant cases, print media is often airbrushed or otherwise edited to not only remove imperfections but to create the illusion of unachievable proportions and beauty.  By comparison, we constantly fall short of nearly every target set before us.

Social Media words involved with Weight Obsessed CultureThough it is easy to blame the media for setting these unrealistic standards, we may do little to discourage it in our own lives.  We acknowledge the desirable traits of famous individuals, complain about our own physical condition, and loudly protest the punishment induced by specific foods.

Again, for most people, these comments are no more than simple statements intended to give voice to likes and dislikes.  However, for others, these comments can serve to establish goals and guidelines for a lifetime of negative body image and self-doubt.

Studies indicate a growing trend of preteen girls believe they must restrict their food intake to become thinner and they just can’t measure up.  This type of sabotaging critic may be carried throughout life.  For example, women continue to echo the inner impression that they would be more attractive to people of both sexes if they were to lose a significant amount of weight.

More interestingly, studies have shown the sociocultural influence on distortions of body type preferences among opposite sexes and they strongly influence the ability to exaggerate these expectations of perfection and project them onto others.

That is, we establish an internal ideal body shape, but convince ourselves that if we were to achieve that shape, the opposite sex would still find thinner women more attractive and that our peers would be striving to be even thinner still (Cohn & Adler, 1992).  What is truth is relative to our inner perceptions and unique experiences and influenced by technology and mainstream media.

Peer influence in Weight Obsessed Culture

It is no coincidence that a country obsessed with physical beauty and thin ideals produce preschoolers concerned that certain foods will make them fat.  Adolescent girls, and boys as well, openly discuss weight, body shape, and dieting.  In many cases, these conversations extend beyond negative appearance-related feedback to include how appearance impacts popularity, weight-related behaviors, and the selection of a model body image.

Our experiences with others in relationship to self-image and body awareness helps lay a  foundation for how we see ourselves. As an example, children who are teased by their peers for body shape/size are more likely to develop a poor sense of body image and may suffer from symptoms of depression.

The saying “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, just doesn’t ring true. Peers can have a tremendous influence on children’s beliefs and ideals.

Who’s in charge?

Mirror, mirror on the wall-Parents and those raising children are the first mirrors upon which children gaze.  Parents’ own inner dialogue related to body and weight attitudes are directly linked to a child’s inner sense of “fit” inside their own body and attitudes weight and food choices. Studies have noted the direct influence of parents’ attitudes related to children’s intake and how attempts to control intake often have the opposite effects on a child’ s habits and choices (Brown & Ogden, 2004).

Schuman (2010), a recent study of the correlation between parents weigh related ideals found that parents’ overt and covert restriction of children’s food intake were significantly associated with child body dissatisfaction.  Her research along with other recent studies conclude that education for both parents and health professionals of the importance of the influence of both direct and indirect parent weight-related attitudes and behaviors can negatively influence a child’s body satisfaction.

A proactive approach to help families

It is clear that given the countless ways children are bombarded with messages that reinforce negative body image, parents play a powerful role in shaping weight-related ideal and must start within themselves to encourage healthy perceptions, beliefs, and actions in their children.

The following is a list of ten ways to help families foster resilience and positive body awareness and regard.

1. Inner Dialogue

Weight Obsessed Culture and sportsParents and caregivers have a tremendous influence on children’s inner thought life related to their worth and abilities.  Help parents understand the importance of talking to children with the thought in mind that they are laying a template for their own inner dialogue style including a sense of mastery, coping styles and ability to nurture and self-soothe.

Working with parents on how to listen, process, and engage with their children is important.  Families can pay attention to how their child speaks to herself/himself during play- you can learn a lot about how they are processing emotions and resolving conflict.

Help families utilize purposeful play techniques to introduce respect and regard for diversity of body sizes and people in general. It is never too early.  These are precious times to engage in this developmental phase to build bridges of healthy cognitive functioning including healthy body awareness and image!

2.  Puberty
Body Image is influenced throughout our lives by multiple factors.  Puberty experiences and changes greatly influence body image and can remain fairly constant through life. Puberty brings windows of opportunity to guide as body’s change and the desire to meet expectations of “fitting in” and meeting ideals intensify.

This is a perfect time to emphasize appreciation for different body sizes and shapes.  Parental modeling of this is a powerful teaching tool. Parents need resources and guidance on how to interact with their children about this sensitive topic.

Provide them with a variety of ways to interact with their children, such as going online or to the library with their kids to find positive, fun educational sites to help their kids understand their bodies better. Sites like Kidshealth.com provide creative ways to talk about questions related to body, growth, and esteem.  They can also teach kids how to respond to peers who may over-focus on unhealthy ideals, including resiliency tips.

3.  Sports and Games
Kids who are involved in athletic endeavors tend to have a healthier body image than those who don’t.  Encourage parents to involve kids in fun and doable sports that will challenge, and provide the experience of mastery. These activities will help kids find their own unique physical strengths and provide excellent ways to reduce stress and increase mood and energy level.

It is important to challenge the family but also work within their resources and capabilities. Help introduce doable activities that include the whole family’s preferences.

4.  Modeling Body Gratitude
Teach parents to be models to their children.  Give them ideas and homework on ways they can appreciate about their own bodies and its function. It is important that children catch their mother or father smiling at themselves in the mirror, or expressing gratitude for their strong legs, bright smile, and skillful hands.

5.  Critical Thinking Skills
Media images and messages about food and bodies are often distorted and kids are the most vulnerable to these messages. But, not if they are taught to be watchdogs of the media!  Parents can question advertisements, messages and use talk-back techniques with their kids when hearing messages that both discourage healthy realistic attitudes and behaviors related to eating and weight.  The National Eating Disorders Association has project ideas to build resilience and tips on how to be proactive against negative media messages.

6.  The Whole Picture
Take a realistic and relational approach to family health.  Identify free seminars on nutrition and activity lifestyles for families. Parents have the most difficult job in the world.  Lead kids to resources that provide building blocks for healthier choices – Provide direction to assist parents in creating balance and boundaries with food and weight.

There are multiple tools that are free and easily available to help guide families make the right choices to improve eating and exercise health and to make the best of their bodies! Bodyworks at www.womenshealth.gov is one excellent resource.

7. Genes versus Jeans
Woman in torn jeans with Weight Obsessed CultureIt’s important to broaden parents’ understanding of the influence of genetics on body types. Families are often relieved when they realize that biological traits speak a great deal to body shape and individual frames.

We can all benefit from knowing the “how to’s” of working with your genes versus the energy, time and failed attempts to be something they are not.  Help families keep the goal on body health and moving away from fitting a form that is not true to you.  What’s on the inside is what counts.

8.  Family Adventure
Include activities in the counseling venue that promote physical movement as well as problem-solving and communication techniques for the family. Experiential and adventure activities help families get out of the box and into new awareness and learning through fun challenges with themes related to choices, teamwork, responsibility,  individual and negotiating individual family goals.

9.  Tool Kits
More than ever families need guidance and assistance related to overall health and nutrition.  Keep your resources plentiful. Include updates of online and community resources such as free educational seminars on nutrition, family stress busters, and healthy esteem and body image enhancers.  Your resources should also be eating disorder treatment clinics who are experts in all areas of family health.

10.  Red Flags
Know the warning signs for a child that might indicate over concern with poor or distorted body image.  This may indicate deeper problems.  Sometimes it is difficult to see the forest through the trees and we know that even committed and concerned parents may miss early detectors indicating a concern.

One behavior does not cause eating disorders; however, some behaviors can be an indicator that one could be more vulnerable to an eating disorder. Some of these include:

  • Anxiety that does not resolve
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Extreme change of attitude and mood
  • Unrelenting disparaging talk about hating their body
  • Increasing rigidity about food to point of cutting out healthy and needed food for proper growth
  • Over- exercise and calorie counting that seems obsessive
  • Strict and fad dieting practices

Article Contributed by Former Staff of The Meadows Ranch:

For over 25 years, The Meadows Ranch has offered an unparalleled depth of care through its unique, comprehensive, and individualized program for treating eating disorders and co-occurring conditions affecting adolescent girls and women. Set on scenic ranch property in the healing landscape of Wickenburg, Arizona, The Meadows Ranch allows for seamless transitions between its structured multi-phase treatment. A world-class clinical team of industry experts leads the treatment approach designed to uncover and understand the “whys” of the eating disorder through a host of proven modalities. Providing individuals with tools to re-engage in a healthy relationship with food – and with themselves – disempowers eating disorders and empowers individuals with a renewed enthusiasm for life. Contact us today at 888-496-5498 and find out why The Meadows Ranch is the best choice for eating disorder treatment and recovery. For more information call 1-888-496-5498.. or visit www.themeadowsranch.com.


Bedford, J.L., & Johnson, C.S. (2006).  Societal influences on body image dissatisfaction in younger and older women.  Journal of Women and Aging, 18, 41-55.

Brown, J., & Ogden, J. (2004). Children’s eating attitudes and behavior: A study of the modeling and control theories of parental influence. Health Education Research: Theory and Practice, 19, 261-271.

Cohn, L, & Adler, N. (1992). Female and male perceptions of ideal body shapes: Distorted views among Caucasian college students.  Psychology of Women Quarterly,
16, 69-79.

Reel, J.J. (2000). Body image and physical self-perceptions among African-American and Caucasian women across the adult life-span.  Dissertation Abstracts International:  61(5-B).

Schuman, S. (2010).  Weight-Related Attitudes and Behaviors: Influence on
Child and Adolescent Body Dissatisfaction.  University of Florida Journal of Psychological Science, 1, 24-43.


Recently Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 2, 2018

Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorder Resource