Sue Scheff: Teens and the Pressure to Be Thin

teeneatingdisorerSource: Connect with Kids

Pressure to be Thin

“My friend thinks that people who are thin are smart and popular.”

– Hannah, 8 years old

What makes a 10-year-old girl happy?  Dolls?  Brightly colored dresses?  A new puppy?  According to a study of over 400,000 Canadian children, the answer is being thin.

“My friend thinks that people that are thin are smart and popular,” says Hannah, 8.

Sinay, 9, says the same thing, “I have a friend and she thinks that people that are thinner are smarter and prettier.”

Researchers surveying young girls find that girls are happiest when they’re thin.  And, even as young as ten, over seven percent of the girls are unhappy with their body.

“I am seeing more and more mothers calling me with very young girls, pediatric age, who are struggling with fears of gaining weight (or) wanting to lose weight,” says Page Love, an Atlanta nutritionist and eating disorder counselor.

Experts say young girls are taking cues from a weight-conscious society—movies, television, and magazines—and from home.

“Often it may be hearing their mom talk about dieting, growing up in a house where all they’ve ever known is fat-free condiments and diet meals,” says Love. “And hearing mom talk about not being happy about (her) own weight.”

Love says parents should censor negative messages about weight and body size, in the media, and in their own conversations.  “Because the kids will start to pick up on it and this sets the stage for how they will start to judge and evaluate different body sizes including their own.”
And if parents are careful, children can learn another message about their bodies.

“I think it’s beautiful and I take care of it a lot,” says Hannah.

“I am perfect the way I am,” says a self-confident Sinay.

Tips for Parents

Research has shown that as girls move from grade school age into their teen years they are more at risk than boys for suffering a drop in self-esteem. In fact, research shows for some girls, this loss of self- esteem is already present by the age of 5.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University examined the relationship between weight status and self-concept in a group of girls five years of age. The researchers found:

  • Girls with higher weight status (weight above average) reported more negative feelings about their bodies than girls with lower weight status.
  • Girls with higher weight status had lower perceived cognitive ability than did girls with lower weight status.
  • All girls, independent of their weight status, reported more negative feelings about their bodies and/or cognitive abilities if their parents were overly concerned about body weight.

According to The Center for Effective Parenting, self-esteem can be defined as how people feel about themselves.  The recent research reinforces the idea that children begin forming beliefs about themselves early in life. These beliefs evolve from an interaction between their biological, inborn traits such as temperament, intelligence and physical characteristics, and environmental influences such as parenting style of their parents and children’s relationships with other adults and peers. When children are criticized or ignored they can develop negative feelings about themselves.  If not corrected, these negative feelings can follow children throughout life, coloring their level of achievement in academics and relationships.

The Center for Effective Parenting provides many ideas on what parents can do to help their children develop healthy levels of self-esteem.  These include:

  • Praise your children.  Praise must be specific and sincere to have a positive effect.  Focus on the positive things your children do.
  • Show your children lots of love and affection with words and physical actions.
  • Treat your children with respect.  You should treat your children with the same amount of respect that you would show to a friend.
  • Be consistent.  Children need things to be predictable in their lives.  Set the rules and consistently enforce them.
  • Don’t demand perfection from your children. Children need to know that their parents accept them for who they are—flaws and all. Instead of criticizing children when they make a mistake, parents should try to turn these mistakes into learning experiences.  Ease up on pressure and offer praise and encouragement.
  • Pay attention to you own behavior and attitudes.  How parents feel about themselves and the world around them is reflected in their behavior.  Children model their behavior and attitudes after their parents.  Parents can’t expect their children to develop a healthy attitude about themselves unless they first see this healthy attitude in their parents.
  • Listen to and respond to your children. Make sure you give your children your complete attention. Try to answer children’s questions as honestly and completely as possible.
  • Don’t let your children criticize themselves.  When you catch your child being self-critical, you need to correct him, otherwise your child may believe that you agree with his negative comments.
  • Teach your child to use positive self-talk.  The more children repeat good things about themselves to themselves, the more likely they will be to actually believe them and incorporate the positive feelings that go along with them.

Keep in mind that all children will experience fluctuations in their self-esteem.  Parents need to watch out for patterns of behavior that don’t seem to disappear with time.  If you have concerns, consult your health care provider or mental health professional.


  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Pediatrics
  • The Center for Effective Parenting