When my oldest daughter was a few months old, she was lying in her infant bouncy chair while I got dressed one day. As I searched for clothes, my eyes inadvertently drew to an image I’d tried to avoid: the reflection of my naked body. Almost instinctively, I turned to the side, looked at my hips and stomach, and began pinching unwanted flesh as I usually did. Sickened, I cast my eyes downward, only to make eye contact with my sweet baby girl. She’d been watching me the whole time, and I realized that I had just given her her first lesson on body image. I decided that day that I was done—done obsessing over every inch, pound, and calorie; done spending minutes each day analyzing my reflection; and most importantly, done teaching my daughter to find her self-worth in a mirror.
I won’t claim to have fully mastered this task, but years of struggling with self-esteem and body image left a trail of reproductive health issues and emotional trauma in their wake. That is not a legacy that I want to pass on to my daughters. In my quest to overcome these issues, I’ve learned some on the best ways to talk to your children about body image.
Disclaimer: Although I have a degree in psychology, I am not a doctor. Please consult your pediatrician if your child’s body image issues are becoming intense or if you suspect an eating disorder.
You need to start talking to your kids about their bodies early, because everyone else is talking to your kids about their bodies early. Kids as young as five years old are starting to diet, and 30% of kids ages 10–13 are currently on a diet. Start talking to your toddlers and preschoolers. Emphasize the things that their bodies can do: run, jump, swim, and catch. Talk to them about healthy foods and exercise that their bodies love. Talk to them about how wonderful it is that everybody is different. Some are tall, while some are short; some have big, strong shoulders, while others have big, strong calves, etc. If you suspect your young children are feeling negatively about their bodies, talk with them about it. Be sure to tell them how much you love them, no matter what they look like, and that though it’s important to take care of their bodies, it’s far more important to be a good and kind person. If you feel as though you are in over your head or your child needs more help than you can give, enlist the help of your pediatrician or a nutritionist.
Teach media discernment.
It’s hard to shield kids from the negative effects of the media. Even if you have a “no screen time” household (and I definitely do not), kids still see media images on billboards, posters, and in stores. Start talking to your kids at an early age (four or five years old) about how advertisers try to get them to buy things. Help them understand that the images they see are unrealistic. One great resource for older kids is the PBS Kids website “Don’t Buy It.” It helps kids understand how advertising works and even gives sneak peeks at how models are digitally altered. Before your kids are old enough for discussions on media discernment, do your best to make sure the TV shows and movies they see are appropriate and positively affect body image. Here is a list of shows and movies that promote positive body image. Body positive books for kids can be found here.
Build self-esteem in other ways.
To keep your child from using his/her looks to develop their self-worth, find other arenas to help him/her develop positive body image. Use your child’s own strengths and weaknesses to discover the best activities for him/her. If your child shows an interest in sports, capitalize on that interest. Multiple studies have shown that kids who are physically active have higher self-esteems than those who aren’t. One great organization for girls is Girls on the Run, a not-for-profit group for third- to eighth-grade girls. Girls on the Run seeks to build self-esteem in girls while training them to run a 5K. If your child doesn’t express an interest in sports, the arts have been shown to promote self-esteem as well. Consider enrolling your child in music or art lessons.
Get rid of “fat talk.”
Words deeply affect children. I can remember nicknames and insults I was given in elementary school: chicken butt, fatso, Jello mold, Quasimodo. I bet you can, too. It’s important that we watch the way we talk to our kids about their bodies. Not only do I not call my daughters skinny or fat, I don’t speak about adults (including myself) that way either. In fact, I do my best to not speak about how their bodies look at all unless I’m asking how they’re feeling. Even seemingly innocuous comments like, “Your tummy looks big!” or, “Look how skinny you are!” contribute negatively to their self image. This includes the way you talk about yourself. If you comment on how fat you are or give yourself disparaging nicknames (pig, cow, etc.), it will affect the way your child thinks about his or her own body. For more tips on stopping fat talk, check this out.
Don’t make food “good” and “bad.”
Food is not good or bad, and you are not good or bad for eating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard another woman tell me, “Ooh, I’m being bad!” while eating a cupcake. “Being bad” is robbing a bank or making a meth lab with a former student to pay for your cancer treatments. Oops, that last one is Breaking Bad. Either way, removing the stigma from certain foods can help your child develop healthy relationships with food. Instead of “good” or “bad,” call foods “anytime foods” or “sometimes foods.” Involve your kids in cooking. Have them help you create menus and give them age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen. As you cook with them, discuss the health benefits of the foods you are cooking. For my girls (ages six and almost four), I tend to generally say fruits/vegetables have vitamins to keep you healthy, proteins help your muscles grow, and carbohydrates give you energy. Sweets are “sometimes foods” because too much of them is bad for your teeth and can make you sick. As they get older, I plan to explain the benefits in a more in-depth way, but for now my kids are satisfied with these explanations.
It’s all about you.
I’m sorry to tell you this, moms, because I know that you already have a lot on your plate. But study after study has shown that children’s body images are heavily influenced by their mother’s body image. So, take the above tips and apply them to your own life.
Start early: I don’t know how old you are, but start now. Start working on building your self-esteem and body image immediately. Don’t wait another day.
Media discernment: Recognize specific media influences that make you feel bad about your body, whether it’s a specific TV show or a magazine. I personally had to stop reading fitness-themed magazines because both the headlines (e.g., “Get better abs!” “Lose weight now!”) and the images always made me feel terrible about myself.
Build self-esteem in other ways: Interested in sports? Train for a 5K or join a sports league. Prefer the arts? Find a painting class or join the church choir. Look for ways to feel good about yourself that don’t involve your looks.
Stop “fat talk“: Stop calling yourself fat. Start to become aware when other women play the “I’m so fat” game—you know, the “my thighs are so big,” “No way, look how big my calves are!” back-and-forth exchange. Gently tell them that you’re not interested and encourage them to stop calling themselves fat too.
Develop a healthy relationship with food: I know this one is easier said than done, but do your best to stop demonizing food. Cook more, which will help you learn more about your food and what’s in it. If you feel overwhelmed, seek help from a nutritionist or your family doctor.
February 22–28 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Low body image is one of the strongest predictors of eating disorders, and helping your kids develop positive body image is a great way to help safeguard them against developing an eating disorder. More information about National Eating Disorder Awareness can be found here. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, seek help from your doctor or check out the National Eating Disorder Foundation’s website.