Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image Interview

Signe Darpinian, LMFT, CEDS, Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S, Shelley Aggarwal, MD joined us for an interview on their book, Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image. What follows are our questions in italics, and their thoughtful responses.

In Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image, you offer parents an interactive toolkit to support them in helping their “children to develop peace with their body …” What are some of the first steps for parents to take in this mission?

As a society, many have lost their way with how to nourish their families. The first step is to bring awareness with self-compassion and curiosity to the issue. Awareness gives you a choice of whether and how you want to think, feel, and/or behave differently. In our culture, we often react and speak unconsciously to messages around food and body – as if we are on autopilot. We soak them in through pop culture, images, music, and day-to-day conversation, rarely questioning their validity or benefit. We then pass on these concerns about weight, shape, and food to our children. In this book, we encourage parents, as a first step, to bring awareness to how they are engaging with their own ideas of food and body. We hope our book gives parents a point of reference and inspiration, so they can cultivate a lasting friendship with food and body and extend that to their children as well.

Can you please share 5 fast facts about the role of sleep during teenage years?

Sleep influences so many aspects of our lives.

A lack of sleep affects mood! Being sleep deprived increases the likelihood of irritability, fatigue, and just feeling “off.” Sadness and depression are worse when sleep quantity is low and these same factors can, themselves, affect sleep quality. Mood affects sleep and sleep affects mood.

Sleep significantly improves sports performance in several areas. For one, reaction time – the speed at which someone responds to a stimulus – improves. This translates to getting to the ball faster, making the tackle, or crossing the finishing line first. With ample sleep, teens will also see an improvement in split-second decision making, which translates into fewer errors on the field, better decisions, and improved accuracy. Athletes are more likely to see fewer injuries as well. And sleep helps consolidate skills into automatic muscle memory. This makes the skills you learned in practice become automatic, fluid movements, which can be accessed when you need them.

A good night’s sleep will also improve academics and teens’ ability to concentrate and focus. Studies show that those who sleep more do better in math and language classes. When we’re sleep-deprived, we are less connected to our body. A good night’s sleep regulates hunger hormones (ghrelin) and satiety hormones (leptin), making it easier to eat in response to our body’s wisdom. Finally, sleep affects immunity and is a time of restoration for the body. A well-rested body is best equipped to fight infection and illness.

What are some of society’s covert and damaging messages about movement and exercise?

There is a lot of morality associated with moving. You’re “good” if you have exercised and “bad” if you haven’t. Kids hear confusing messages about food and exercise from such an early age. “Eat less!” “Burn off your holiday food!” Diet messages tell kids that something is wrong with their bodies, increase body shame, and teach them to fear foods. They also quickly take the joy and fun out of movement. Judgments around movement can lead to assumptions about what it means to be healthy and fit, while creating pressure and criticism of the self and others. There may be an insistence to move in order to achieve a certain body type. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, 40 percent of teen girls are not participating in sports, and they are also two times more likely than boys to drop out of sports by age 14. Why? The research indicates they feel awkward, or do not like the way they look.

As we take in and then transmit these values, many of us fall victim to limited notions of personal wellness as they relate to movement. Unfortunately, many of these same messages also include layers of social and gender bias (ex, “you run like a girl”). This pressure to move—or to move in a specific way—has the opposite effect and can negatively affect sports performance and play. When talking to teens, it is critical that parents support their teen in achieving their physical goals, while emphasizing joyful activity that is aligned with true, unique, and personally identified health.

At the end of Chapter 6, entitled “Diet-free Parent,” you provide a “Diet-Free Parenting Self-Assessment.” Your goal?

The “diet-free parenting self-assessment” is a tool to help parents/guardians evaluate where they are regarding their own relationship to food, so they can determine where they’d like to be. It’s not uncommon for parents to be at odds with their values as they relate to food messaging. For example, for parents in a two-parent relationship, one parent may value non-diet approaches to food and size diversity, while the other parent is entrenched in diet-culture, making it hard to be unified. The self-assessment can be a way to identify risk factors and serve as a place for parents to get on the same page around different topics.

Lower scores reflect a more peaceful relationship with food. If the parent score is 19 or higher, they may wish to discuss their concerns with an experienced, weight-inclusive, non-diet registered dietitian and/or therapist, for guidance around their own relationship with food and body.

You state, “Food is so much more than protein, starch, and vitamins and minerals, yet many people struggle to really have fun with food.” Please tell us how this connects to food culture.

Diet culture has reduced food down into calories, grams, or measurements for many people. Yet, we wanted to remind our readers that food is meant to add joy, fun, and pleasure. Food is much more than the ingredients on a menu or the items on a plate. We have different foods for different situations, ages/stages, and occasions. Foods are intertwined in our socialization (birthday parties) and for cultural reasons (for example, religious holidays). It is a central ingredient in socialization, bringing families, friends, and loved ones together for holidays, special events, celebrations, sporting events, and concerts.

Food is culture. There are whole festivals created around the diverse food traditions of people from various parts of the globe, as well as within any given country. Regional cuisine is sought out, and people will go to extraordinary lengths to experience the food of their neighbors and other local communities. This adds interest and exploration and even adventure to our lives. Now, at times, we may not like all of these experiences… and that’s fine! The point is to remain open to new experiences and flavors. We encourage families to try new things and keep an open mind to food, because it links us to each other. When one thinks of food in this expansive way, and not just as component parts, it not only creates an invitation for new culinary experiences, but it also allows us to enter each other’s lives and traditions. Food really does bring people together!

What are some tips to help parents model healthy boundaries?

Everyone talks about having good boundaries, but many of us end up asking, “What does that even mean?” Most people struggle to understand where to start. Boundaries are about us and not the other person. That doesn’t mean that we always get our way or that it always “works out.” But boundaries help us teach those around us about who we are and what will or will not work for us. Setting boundaries is not about forcing someone to bend to our will, it’s about being able to clearly communicate our needs so that we are in alignment with our values. We model this to everyone around us, especially our children.

If someone is new to setting boundaries, at first it can feel really uncomfortable. Feeling bad does not mean that establishing the boundary was wrong – it just means the person is breaking an old unhealthy pattern. It can be difficult to know how to assert or even define your boundaries, especially for those who may have grown up in a household where boundaries were routinely broken. This can show up for parents who are also learning along with their child; some of us were not always given a lot to work with, as kids ourselves.

So, what are some first steps? Start with, “What do I value?” Keep going with, “What do I need,” and “What do I want?” For example, you are reaching for another piece of food and a friend says, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” Your internal reaction is, “Yeah, I’m sure, and why else would I reach for this if I wasn’t sure?” Yet, your external response may be embarrassment or even fear. We suggest reminding yourself that the person who knows what you value, want, and need is YOU. There will be times when you are not fully able to express or do what you want as it relates to your core values, in light of cultural, family, or professional situations. That’s okay. Awareness in these circumstances can offer great learning opportunities and time for self-reflection. By recognizing that something is off for you, you can think about why, and how, you want to handle things differently next time. You can choose to respond or not respond in any given moment, but as a rule, we suggest that you speak the truth that resonates with you in the time frame that works for you.

How might a parent guide their child to expand their definition of beauty? And what are the benefits of this practice?

“Within every culture, there tends to exist a beauty ideal. The Body Positive (TBP) helps people develop balanced, joyful self-care, and a relationship with their bodies that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humor. They encourage us to recognize that beauty is not the problem; the problem is the narrow definition of beauty and the exclusion that these limited ideas create. TBP co-founder Elizabeth Scott states, “The goal is to expand our definition of beauty to include ourselves and our ancestors as they show up in our bodies.”

People of all shapes and sizes can have a positive body image and a healthy respect for themselves. However, many cultures force the idea that those who don’t look a certain way shouldn’t feel positive about who they are. By rejecting constricted ideas of beauty and expanding the definition of what it means to be someone who is thriving and appreciative of their physical appearance, we not only decrease our personal stress but also create a more inclusive paradigm.”

Excerpt from “Raising Body Positive Teens”

About the authors:

Signe Darpinian is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Eating Disorders Specialist and  host of Therapy Rocks! a personal growth podcast. She provides tele-health in the state of California.

Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S specializes in adolescent nutrition, eating disorders and sports nutrition. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the co-author of How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder.

Shelley Aggarwal MD, is a board-certified Pediatrician and Adolescent Medicine Sub-Specialist, with expertise in adolescent development and disordered eating. She is teaching faculty with Stanford School of Medicine. 

 They are co-authors of No Weigh! A Teen’s Guide to Positive Body Image, Food and Emotional Wisdom as well as Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image, both with Jessica Kingsley Publishers in London.

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