I’ve been thinking a lot lately about body image, my children’s and my own. What can I do to support my children in growing up to think positively about their bodies, when so much of our culture tells us we are not good enough? I have three children that are all quite different.
My oldest, Miriam is in 5th grade and suddenly is not a little girl any more. She will be going to middle school next year and we all know the challenges that middle school can present with bodies changing and children navigating a new social landscape. My middle child, Isaac, is always moving, loves sports, and a bit oblivious about his looks. I often have to straighten out his pants in the morning or tell him his shirt is on backwards. My youngest, Vivian, will be 3 years old in July. She had a perinatal stroke and does weekly occupational therapy and physical therapy to work on her gross and fine motor skills. She has helped me broaden what I think of as body image. Body image is how one thinks of and views their own body. There are so many factors outside of weight and shape that affect our body image, including, race, sex, gender, ability, ethnicity, clothing, and socioeconomic status. Like any parent, I want my children to grow up to be happy and confident. I never want them to think that their body needs to be changed for them to be okay.
I know firsthand this is a very lofty wish. I’m a dietitian that specializes in eating disorders and feel strongly that diet culture is harmful. You can read more about this in my post, Stay Away from My Children, Weight Watchers. I am a Health at Every Size® practitioner and believe that weight does not define health and understand fully the false message our culture sends us about bodies and weight. Here I am at a recent scale smash on a college campus.
However, I too, at times, struggle with my own body image. I am someone who is immersed in the non-diet world and at the same time am not immune to the messages of our culture and at times my brain returns to old pathways. I share this to demonstrate that I certainly do not have it all figured out. I do however, believe we can all work towards shifting that culture even if we’re not 100% there yet, and that can start with how we view and talk about bodies to our children and within our homes.
I am often asked, “What can I do to support my child feeling good about their body?” These questions come from friends on the neighborhood playground, who may diet and are struggling with their body changing as they age. Or, it may come form a client who’s worried about their child’s weight and that’s why they are in my office. I have clients that struggle with eating disorders and want so badly for their child not to experience body image issues as they have. We parents are all coming from our own different experiences and all have in common that we want the very best for our children. We don’t want our children to suffer. We can’t shield ourselves or our children from diet culture, but we can model for our children acceptance of all bodies and rejection that a thin body is a better body. Even if you aren’t fully there with feeling good about your own body or rejecting diets, you can choose to talk differently around children. You can fake it till you make it.
Here are 6 suggestions that will support raising children that feel good about their bodies.
3 things to avoid:
- Don’t talk negatively about your own body in earshot of your children. Children learn from and model what their parents teach them. If you criticize your body and express a desire to change it, you are modeling to your child that that is what adults do. If you need to express those feelings or thoughts, do it behind closed doors.
- Don’t comment on your child’s weight. Children should not be told there is something wrong with their bodies. Children’s minds work differently than adults’ mind and while comments about weight isn’t healthy for anyone this can be especially confusing and frightening for children. It’s directly harmful for a child to hear from a parent that there weight is not “right.” It’s so important for children to hear they are are loved and accepted by their loved ones, no matter what.
- Don’t comment on others’ weight, weight loss, or weight gain. If a parent is commenting on others’ weight, whether it is a stranger walking down the street, a friend, or people on TV, they are modeling to their children that someone’s weight is of utmost importance. This message can be internalized by a child. “If I don’t have the right weight, I’m not going to be accepted by my parent or society.”
3 things to do:
- Talk positively about your own body. This may feel funny at first and may take practice. By commenting about how your arms are strong or how much you like your new haircut or how you love how your body feels when you have a dance party with your child, you are modeling that it’s okay to feel positively about your own body. Dig deep and try it out. Try to say one positive thing about your body in front of your child each day.
- Say positive things about what your child’s body does. Say genuinely positive things about your child’s body that has nothing to do with weight. “Wow – your arms are so strong that you could pick up that box!” “Your body is smart and telling you to take a rest.” “Look, your body remembered how to ride a bike. Isn’t that amazing?”
- Listen if your child expresses concern about their body, but don’t try to “fix” it. Like I said, we can’t shield our children, or ourselves, from diet culture. Our children may come to us with concerns about their weight. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t tell them they aren’t fat or their body is perfect. Ask them questions, “Why would you say that about your body?” “Can you tell me what you are worried about?” Go into question mode and try to resist fix-it mode. Even if you are worried about your child’s weight, do not offer solutions to “fix” your child’s body. Instead, listen to what may be going on that is manifesting itself into feeling badly about their body. If you offer a solution, like changing what the child eats or how they move, that reinforces the false idea that for them to be okay their body needs to change. If you are worried about your child’s weight, seek your own support from a non-diet professional.
Most of all, remember that a child needs love and acceptance and this is an important part of a being healthy. It is invaluable to a child to grow up knowing that they don't need to do anything to gain love and acceptance. If you do have a child in a large body, it’s not your job to change their body. It’s your job to love them unconditionally. We know that our culture has pretty strong weight bias, which can be worrisome for a parent who has a child in a large body. All the more reason to create a home that is loving and supportive for your child so that they can be fortified against the negative messages of our culture. All of this takes practice, but your children, and you, are worth it.