Ugly Isn’t Just a Word. It’s a Full-Bodied Enemy.

Learn 9 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Body Image Today

When children as young as three years old are concerned about their body size, it’s clear we have a serious problem. Preschoolers are supposed to be learning their colors! Not examining their baby fat in disgust. Last year, I wrote a post on Fostering Competent Eating to help families encourage a positive relationship between their children and food. And now, we really need to talk about body image and the ill effects of Diet Culture.

Building Children Up in the Face a Culture that Tears Them Down

Children receive messages about their appearance everywhere they turn: from us, from their peers, from advertising, from toys, from media (social and otherwise), and elsewhere. When a child gets battered about the head by toxic messaging over time, it has a detrimental effect. Our sweet little babies who were so fascinated with their fingers and toes become teenagers who say the most devastating things about themselves. How they get there is an easy-to-track trajectory of negativity and perfectionism.

Mom.com posted a revealing piece about children and body image several years ago and every point still rings true today. In it, Jenna Birch notes the following shocking facts:

  • Girls Are Dieting by Age 10
  • ‘Thigh gaps’ have become teen status symbols
  • Board Games Becoming More Image-Conscious
  • Body-Image Issues in Boys Could Lead to Steroids
  • Teens Find ‘Thinspiration’ on Social Media
  • More Kids Under 12 Hospitalized for Eating Disorders
  • Concept of ‘Fat Prejudice’ Starts as Young as 4
  • Schools May Perpetuate Bad Eating Habits
  • Clothes Becoming More Sexualized
  • Anxiety May Trigger an Eating Disorder

What can we do as parents in the face of such awfulness? To start, we have to understand that there really is no end game. Our work in counteracting negative body image has to be constant both for our children and for ourselves. Coming at this issue from a peaceful perspective, here are some ideas for how to make that happen.

  1. Stop making negative comments about your body and others’ bodies. It’s such a tough habit to break when you’ve done it for as long as you can remember. You can start by never again commenting on someone’s weight loss or weight gain. “I’m glad you’re happy!” is a neutral, kind way to acknowledge weight fluctuations that people wish to celebrate.
  2. Embrace Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size. Reject the tenuous link between weight and health, and focus on giving your family every possible opportunity to love their bodies as they are. If you need help finding a new perspective on fatness in particular, check out this (long) post on “obesity” facts, complete with a robust bibliography of primary sources.
  3. Talk with your child about what you see in tv shows, movies, and magazines. Pull back the curtain and point out everything that’s unrealistic, making sure to be specific and accurate. Your goal is to present the truth and give your child space to figure out the rest.
  4. Get your child involved in physical activity early on. Kids who see the amazing things their bodies can do are less likely to view their bodies negatively. To that end, team sports are especially effective at improving self-esteem.
  5. Avoid general praise altogether and, instead, focus on specific remarks about effort as much as possible. Instead of “Well done” try “I see how hard you’re working on your book report.” Instead of “Good game” try “You practiced so hard and now you’re making almost every basket!” Instead of “Good job” try “You did it! I know how much effort you put into getting it right.”
  6. Expose your child to the body positivity, size acceptance, and fat liberation movements. No, they aren’t perfect but what is? Letting voices outside of your family speak to your child about how important it is to love our bodies unconditionally can counteract much of the messaging coming through media.
  7. Teach your child about their body and use proper terms for body parts. It can be tough, but it’s important to talk about topics like menstruation, masturbation, and sex as factually and honestly as you can. Using euphemisms and appearing in any way like you’re uncomfortable with the discussion can send a message that something is inherently wrong with our bodies. You can prepare for these discussions by practicing talking openly about bodily functions. For instance, starting in infancy, rather than naming feces things like “stinky” and making comments about how bad your child’s diaper smells, try simply stating “You pooped! Let’s get cleaned up.” Reserve the commentary for your child’s sake.
  8. If your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other treatable mental health burden, prioritize professional intervention. Positive and negative body image fluctuate over our lifetimes, influenced both by external messaging and our internal mental health. Therapists can make a huge difference in the life of a child and, by teaching your child to seek help as a matter of course, you will set them up for a lifetime of well tended mental health. **If your child is displaying symptoms of an eating disorder no matter how much they weigh, get help immediately.
  9. And, of course, this piece wouldn’t be complete without plugging Peaceful Parenting! All of the work you’re putting into being respectful of your kids, honoring consent and bodily autonomy, and speaking lovingly will go a long way toward supplying your child’s inner voice with the power it needs to fight back against negative ideation.

Getting Through Those Tough Conversations

When you need to craft a response to your child’s self-deprecating commentary, remember three things:

  1. Avoid invalidating your child’s feelings and empathize where possible
  2. Acknowledge truth
  3. Challenge the narrative

Example Comment: “I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.”

  1. Avoid Invalidating And Empathize: Resist the urge to say “You’re not fat” or otherwise deny your child’s feelings. Neutrally recognize how they feel in the moment.
  2. Acknowledge Truth: “You’re right that different people have different body types.”
  3. Challenge the Narrative: “ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.”

Example Conversation

Daughter: I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.

Parent: You’re right that different people have different body types. ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.

Daughter: You don’t understand! I’m so FAT. I hate myself.

Parent: Uh uh. I DO know how it feels to hate my body. I get it. I’ve felt exactly the same way. It’s hard to overcome those feelings when everyone seems to be telling you to hate yourself because you aren’t their version of perfect. It’s hard. Really hard. I’m here for you anytime you need to unload.

Unfortunately, negative body image can’t be overcome in a single conversation. If it could, the weight loss industry wouldn’t be dealing in $70+ billion every year. You’re going to have thousands of these moments to deconstruct what our culture has built in your child’s mind. Your child likely won’t be receptive at first and may go through many setbacks as the years go by. Give it time and give your child grace. Every effort on your part brings your child one step closer to abundant self-confidence. You are the living stopgap measure standing in the breach until your child finds their own best weapon against this brutal enemy. It’s a hard place to stand, but there is no better person than you to protect your child.

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