Preteen Tips on Nutrition, Body Image & “How to Say it To Girls”

imlikesofat.jpg“Faced with conflicting messages from parents, peers, and media, many preteens — both boys and girls — develop negative views about their bodies and have trouble making healthful food and exercise choices.”

That was the lead-in line at the Kaiser Permanente and Preteen Alliance event where I spoke today as the ‘media expert’ along with Ann Tipton, M.D. on “The Care and Feeding of Preteens: Helping Them Develop Healthful Habits and a Positive Self-Image.”

My first guffaw with my ‘media expert’ moniker is that there IS no such thing as ‘expert’ in navigating the rough surf of media messaging and body image. All we can do is be vigilantly media literate, keep our heads above the chop (or water out of the snorkel when diving extra deep ) and counter-market harmful messages using “peer to peer” marketing finesse wherever plausible to ‘seed’ positive content in a helpful, seamless way.

After showing my little video clip on instilling awareness and critical thinking skills in ‘MTV style,’ I realize we deluged the crowd with handouts and still only scratched the surface of great resources out there. In addition to Dr. Tipton’s recommended reading, “I’m, Like, SO Fat!” and of course, our own Shaping Youth Correspondent, Dr. Robyn Silverman’s body image resource blog, I’ll add a few more…

af-logo.jpgI wanted to introduce Jennifer Berger of the About-Face blog and website who was in the audience but we ran out of time…So check out their site, as she DOES do body image workshops for girls locally and at schools and youth groups! (whereas Shaping Youth is focused more on testing locally, then scaling our programs into digital downloads for open source internet access; so if you need a presentation, give her a holler)

For the “what about the boys?” inquiries, Shaping Youth advisors Dr. Sharon Lamb and Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown are well underway with their new sequel to Packaging Girlhood, called of course, Packaging Boyhood due out next year…And for more research on the impact of pop culture on boys’ disordered eating/obesity issues, check ‘’ with a gazillion links on male body image, including a great article on the G.I.Joe muscle man phenom and warrior avatars by Amy Dickinson called, “Obesity in Young Boys is on the Rise and So Are Eating Disorders. Who’s is at Fault?”

For gents, here’s the Dads and Daughters site I mentioned; a fabulous resource for male to male candor about some of the squirmy body image discomfort that dads sometimes aren’t sure how to handle…Also check out our Poppa Picks article on favorite ‘daddy bloggers’ and their insights from last season.

getrealart.jpgCourtney Macavinta’s new “Getting Real” social media community for girls has some great deconstruction of media (stay tuned for a full feature on her work forthcoming, this week she’s leading self-esteem week with the Dove crowd in CT) and here’s Audrey Brashich’s book I mentioned, called All Made Up, (A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty) which Shaping Youth used as a preteen book club pick for podcasting tween girls’ voices to be added to the media mix on body image. Audrey is a former teen mag editor/model turned author, so she knows this world from the inside out.

how-to-say-it.jpgSince the audience tap-danced around the ‘weight’ eggshell question with many educators and parents uncertain of “How to Say It To Girls” since the subject is so touchy and prone to missteps, I’ll add New Moon Girl Media Maven Nancy Gruver’s blog (and her book at left by the same name) as a handy guide staged by age.

For example, in our film work for Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth when teeny kids in 2nd grade said things like “Do these jeans make me look fat?” it definitely landed on me as an adult with a sad thud and a sigh at the sorry state of our cultural times…

What do we do? What do we say to these incomprehensible concepts?

Nancy’s book suggests that for the 8-13 tweens, you can simply flip the question, and ask, “Why are you asking me if I think you look fat? Where is that coming from?” to try to glean the source of the influence (peer, media, narrow beauty standards, etc.) in order to address it better.

Using a reverse/quizzical query might put you on the receiving end of a snarl with older tweens, but then again, anything to diffuse and engage in dialog makes sense; and could help to tease out the REAL dynamic to gain raw data for counter-marketing what’s bugging this youth and why. (as we say in the film business, there’s ALWAYS backstory!)

ann-tipton.jpgFor specifics along these lines, though, I humbly defer to my awesome M.D. co-presenter, Dr. Ann C. Tipton, who has a wealth of pragmatic knowledge as a pediatrician/adolescent medicine/research specialist who worked for several years at Stanford’s Adolescent Eating Disorders program, then 21 years at Oakland Kaiser in adolescent services, and has recently retired.

I know I could learn a tons from her, so heads up, Ann, I plan to interview you directly for Shaping Youth soon, as there was just not enough time to get out of the shallow end of the pool and dive deep; we barely got our toes wet!

I’d also love to pose questions from a youth perspective to her, and have tweens/teens be candid and speak freely, as the anonymity of the internet can facilitate open-ended conversations where other dialogs might flop. (um, like the sexuality ‘duck-n-cover’ tween talks when loved ones dodge the ‘parental units’ and cover their ears, blaring, “we already covered this in family life!”)

tape-measure.jpgAnn’s warm-hearted visual retrospective of her own kids’ body growth timelines over the years provided firstperson evidence (and a loving tribute to her healthy, collegiate rowers) that growth spurts surge at varying ages and stages, and ‘all things change.’

She mused ‘this is the one that never even wanted to sweat!’ and showed towering sibs who caught up with each other, then role-reversed later in the height/weight and even gender dynamics, with her champion girl rower inspiring the boy to take up the sport!

She reinforced the ‘healthy and fit’ vs. ‘weight-based’ numerical obsessions, and Katie in the audience pointed out that her 11-year old was perplexed by even the SIZING of preteen clothes (wearing a ‘large’ at American Eagle, for example, when the child is an average size, makes you wonder what a ‘small’ would be, ‘subzero?’)

Conversely, I’ve drowned in some women’s brands when I try to buy my normal size because some retail/fashion pros psychologically ‘over-size’ so that folks flatter themselves into thinking they’ve fit into a smaller size.

THIS is marketing at its most subversive, and oh, how could I tell you stories on the backroom practices and underbelly of this business…Suffice it to say, caveat emptor comes into play universally, and the more we convey this to preteens early on, the less they’ll think it’s ‘them’ and the more they’ll KNOW it’s about profiteering. (specifically, mining insecurity to peddle products, goods and services)

whistle.jpgFor those with coaches and volunteers in preteen’s lives, be especially mindful when you’re dealing with ‘weight-class’ sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, or boxing and appearance-based athletes in the ballet or ice-skating arena to prevent body image reverb…Some of the things that come out of team-mates and coaches are far from ‘sporting,’ even if it’s said ‘in the name of competitive drive.’

Same goes with the swigging of energy drinks, caffeine, or sports drink concoctions…Try our cyclebreaking ThreeP tactics to counter-market junky team processed pouches. (or anything for that matter)

Finally, on the media front, body image/food/nutrition focus is resulting in some media interplay that’s essential for you to be aware of; is my favorite interactive primer to get up to speed fast.

Body-image and weight slams show up in the form of cyberbullying as well, from an IM comment to a text message slam. These days kids can go from a lunch table sneer about a food choice or fashion foible, to a quick segue toward ‘odd girl out’ relational aggression. You may recall this from our “bully series” including the new media digital ‘living book’ from SEPTAR, “Can I sit with you?”—The Stormy Seas of the Social Schoolyard, (HQ right here on the peninsula!)

With middle schoolers jockeying for social stature, self-identity and power gamesmanship, it’s no wonder some of our friends have called it an ‘academic wasteland’ since so much is going on developmentally with pre-pubescent angst.

The teens we work with tell me their friends ‘outgrow’ it, but somehow when it alters the course of self-worth and body image this early on, it seems waaaaay out of balance…

Last but not least, personal request: Could I ask the woman with the blended family of 5 kids/3 preteens with a polarity of food/nutritional intake/influences please leave a note on the blog so I can get in touch with you? The conundrum would make a fabulous feature story on a variety of relational levels; and it’s a subject that hasn’t been covered nearly enough!

If you have preteens/teens interested in media messaging, Shaping Youth would LOVE to add their voice into our media mix to keep our messaging ‘on point’ and our work relevant in this everchanging arena.

Our youth advisors are a core part of our ability to know what’s REALLY going on, and kids can earn service points for internships as well…

Thank you to Kaiser Permanente and Lucile Packard Children’s Health Foundation’s Preteen Alliance for hosting this important event.

“Diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body.” ~Cicero

Let’s take a closer look at the media and marketing messages damaging this generation of children, inside and out…and flip those cues backwards to create positive change!

Wanna help? Just leave a note in the comment section…



  1. Thanks to John Kelly for adding this Huffington Post link along with the ‘Helping Girls Navigate Sexualization in the Media” by Joyce McFadden here:

    And more here:

  2. Thank you so much for mentioning my work and New Moon on your blog! You are doing really important work in changing the world for girls — thank you and keep it up! We look forward to hearing your voice on our blogs again soon.

    All the best,
    Nancy Gruver

  3. I have to say that “about-face” was a website I visited often when I was writing my dissertation on body image and girls– oh, those were the days. The site is an inspiration. And Blue Moon rocks! What an amazing collection of passionate experts, Amy– you included.

    See you soon-

    Dr. Robyn

  4. Blue Moon, New Moon…actually, they have a whole new Orb arising, it’s called Orb28 and geared to tweens as a community hub, run by Nancy Gruver’s New Moon Girl Media who’s just had a ‘makeover’ of the magazine…

    As for About-Face, yes, it’s got great reminders in the ‘hall of shame, hall of fame’ for producers one & all to recall that all media messages need to accountability and responsibility for what we’re putting out there!

  5. Angie Chandler says

    do you do workshops in secondary schools? if so please email me details

  6. It is very important to live healthy every day. Teenagers nowadays are being so sick of staying healthy. Numerous teens are not anymore physically active. They live an idle life. No more stretching of body, just eating junk foods or other unhealthy foods which is very dangerous for one’s health.

    I hope this article shall awaken their consciousness.

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