What can parents do to help kids have a positive body image? How can we help our kids not judge people by their size?
Note: Since 85% of active dieters in the US are women, I am going to talk about girls for this post. However, boys and men are also subject to harmful messages about their bodies. This infographic includes some tips about boys. Email me if you need extra resources for helping the boys in your life!
According to a report from Common Sense Media, children as young as 5 years old express dissatisfaction with their bodies.
It’s no surprise.
In the US, the diet industry is a 60 BILLION dollar problem. Around 100 million people are actively trying to lose weight at any given time.
Children are subject to the same media messages and cultural pressures that adults are.
Children are just beginning to solidify their identity, their self-esteem, and their image of themselves. They are incredibly susceptible to messages about their bodies.
Additional Reading: 21 Things to Stop Saying Unless You Hate Fat People
Building body positivity for girls is a far-reaching endeavor.
- Body image is closely linked with self-esteem. Once low self-esteem is established, it affects all aspects of a person’s thinking.
- When girls have low self-esteem they are more likely to have negative habits like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, disordered eating (1), early sexual activity, and suicidal thoughts. (2)
- When girls feel bad about their looks, they try to avoid their normal activities like attending school. (1)
- Girls who are unhappy with their bodies may develop disordered eating habits like dieting, fasting, binging and purging.
- More than 1/3 of people who diet “normally” will begin pathological dieting, and 1/4 of those will suffer from an eating disorder. (2)
Fortunately, supporting body positivity for girls is something we can all do! No matter who you are, you can do these three things:
- Stop commenting on the appearance of girls. Period. When you are talking to a girl, don’t comment on her hair, clothes, shoes, accessories, skin, height, expression, or ANYTHING to do with her appearance. Girls get this kind of commentary constantly and it communicates that the way they look is what’s important about them. Change the message. Talk about ANYTHING ELSE.
- Stop talking down about your body and the bodies of others. Every time we participate in body-hate, we contribute to the culture that makes body positivity for girls an uphill battle.
- Consume media that displays a variety of body types in a positive light. Books, magazines, TV shows, movies, and websites get their support from our dollars and our eyeballs. Spend your attention in a way that promotes the kind of world you want to see.
Additional steps for parents to support body positivity for girls:
- Think about what you say about bodies. Moms, watch how you talk about your own body. Dads, watch how you talk about the appearance of other women. Learn some body positive mantras and get them into your regular language. Try “all bodies are good bodies” or some of these other suggestions.
- Think about what you say about food. Make a family rule that everyone, everywhere, at all times, is allowed to Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want.
- Think about what you say about exercise. It’s okay to encourage physical activity. But consider whether you make it sound like a moral imperative, boring, or something you do out of fear. Instead, do what you love! Move your bodies in fun ways!
- Get involved in the media your child consumes. You may not be able to control everything they see, but you can talk about the messages they encounter.
- Encourage helpful sports. Sports can be a positive influence. Don’t encourage sports that rely on unrealistic bodies, such as ice skating, gymnastics, or dance. Pay attention to the behavior and messages sent by coaches. But with a fun sport focused on team-building and strong bodies, participation can help girls feel good about their bodies.
- Cultivate good influences. Surround yourself with other people who are committed to body positivity. Fill your home with movies, books, artwork, music that promote body positivity and good role models.
- Listen to your daughter. When your daughter talks about her body, listen deeply to what she has to say. Don’t dismiss her fears. Instead, empathize. This is a battle you’re in together, along with every other woman in our culture. Listen, too, when she talks about the appearance of others. Don’t scold her or be dismissive if she’s judgmental of others. Look behind the words for the fears and concerns lurking there so you can face those head on.
- Be accepting. Take special care with other features that make your child different. If your child is a different race from her friends, has a disability, is gay or queer, and so on, she faces extra obstacles in maintaining a positive self-image. These other characteristics interact and interplay with the appearance-based messages your child gets. Accept your child for exactly who she is – every part of her.
Do you have any personal stories that might be helpful to others?
- As a child, what did adults do or not do that affected your body image (positively or negatively)?
- As a parent, what have you seen help or hurt your child?
- As a member of this culture, what do you wish we all did differently to spread body positivity?
Share your ideas in the comments!
(1) https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-teens-and-self-esteem, (2) https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-body-image
Additional Reading: Here’s a tiny selection of some of the great books about living a great life as a fat person. (These are affiliate links.)