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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 disorderno matter how much they weigh, get help immediately.
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:
Avoid invalidating your child’s feelings and empathize where possible
Challenge the narrative
Example Comment: “I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.”
Avoid InvalidatingAnd 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.
Acknowledge Truth: “You’re right that different people have different body types.”
Challenge the Narrative: “ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.”
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.
As someone who has struggled with my weight my entire adult life, this post is really important to me. I tried all sorts of diets and ended up losing 150+ pounds on a paleo/primal diet alongside improved control over my thyroid function. At the time, I thought it was amazing. I mean, who doesn’t want to lose weight?! Since then, I’ve had two children and nursed for a collective total of 4+ years, and it shows. My body is very different than it was before kids. I prayed for years for God to take my appetite away completely. Looking back, wow, what a request! “Dear Lord, please remove one of the basic functions that allows me to live.” It’s incredibly sad, really.
At the end of last year, I stumbled upon an answer I wasn’t expecting: Intuitive Eating (IE). If you haven’t heard of it, we’ll be going over it in this post. IE has changed my life. I’m happier and healthier without losing a single pound.
If you’re ready learn the secrets of raising children who have a great relationship with food, healthy bodies, and happy minds, read on!
Not only am I not a nutritionist, but I’m also a superfat woman who dieted my way up to this point and has no intention of trying ever again to force my body to lose weight. I spent years losing and gaining the same weight and wrecking my metabolism as a result. I even had to have emergency gallbladder surgery due to my wild weight loss efforts. So, why listen to me at all?
Well, I’m posting about nutrition with the goals of interrupting fatphobia in the lives of children, eliminating excessive rules around food, quieting food moralizing, and allowing kids’ bodies to become the natural size they’re meant to be without adult intervention. And, I’m pointing to the collective work of thousands of nutritionists and nutrition scientists in the process. As a peaceful parent, I believe children must have autonomy over their bodies, including when they engage in the most basic act of eating.
Fatphobia is fear and/or disgust toward fatness and fat people. Both thin and fat people experience harmful shaming. We can’t seem to get away from shame as a culture. However, the entire system is stacked against fat people in a way that thin people typically don’t experience.
So, why should you care about any of this as a peaceful parent? Well…
Oh, by the way, the Body Mass Index (BMI) was never intended to be individually diagnostic. The person who developed what would come to be known as the BMI was a social science statistician who was curious about what the “average” person looked like weight-wise in his day, so he measured a bunch of white people and created average weight/height ranges. BMI is descriptive of a population. It was not, and cannot be, prescriptive. It can’t tell you if you’re healthy. Applied accurately, BMI should be reassessed to see what the average person looks like today instead of trying to cram us all into arbitrary weight ranges.
It’s ok to be fat. It’s ok to be slim. It’s ok to be everything in between. What’s not ok is to dictate to children what size their bodies should be. Doing so hurts kids. Particularly when it comes to children of size, weight stigma at home combined with systemic fatphobia leads to things like binge eating, social isolation, refusal of medical care, and other barriers to health. Bottom line, stop worrying about your kids’ weight and, instead, make non-weight related changes to your family’s lifestyle.
Rather than stressing over weight, try encouraging fun movement every day (and you should join in too!), adding in plant foods, going easy on alcohol, and avoiding tobacco products entirely. Doing just these four things will drastically increase your family’s lifespan and quality of lifewithout weight loss or gain. More time with my kids? Yes please!
An Alternative to Traditional Food Rules
Intuitive Eating (IE) is an approach to human-centered nutrition that heals the physical and psychological impacts of dieting and diet culture. It is the ultimate anti-diet that guides our bodies back to the natural responses to hunger and satiety that we were born with. Substantial research informs this approach, so many Registered Dieticians are now working toward (or are already practicing with) IE certification. You may be able to find support in your area through the official IE website or here.
Ultimately, IE can reacquaint adults with our internal systems of food management, and improve our mental health as we disengage from diet culture. For an in-depth beginner’s guide, I highly recommend Rachael Hartley’s Intuitive Eating 101. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, the Facebook group, Intuitive Eating for Beginners, may be just what you need.
Intuitive Eating is a huge topic with lots of blogs devoted strictly to its practice. For my purposes, I’m looking to key in on childhood nutrition to help parents and caregivers make the switch to an approach to nutrition that also strengthens the relationship between child and adult.
Ellyn Satter Institute
The fact of the matter is that children cannot truly practice Intuitive Eating, at least not in the sense that adults can. Children do not manage food purchases, meals, or schedules. As such, the adults in their lives are responsible for guiding them toward Intuitive Eating by fostering their natural inclinations. That’s where Ellyn Satter comes in.
Satter is a Registered Dietitian and therapist specializing in eating disorders with more than 40 years of experience in her field. Her work has provided us a complete picture of how to take children from birth to adulthood without smothering their natural ability to regulate food intake, which is something many adults in the U.S. have lost to dieting.
The Ellyn Satter Institute was established to advance eating competence via theoretically grounded, evidence based, and clinically effective practices. The Institute publishes nutrition guidance, trains professionals, and connects mentors with families.
Normal eating is eating competence. It is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.
It is being able to choose food you enjoy and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should.
Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.
Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.
It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.
Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more.
Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
Division of Responsibility
The key to Satter’s methods with children is Division of Responsibility, which refers to which family member is responsibility for which choices around food. This is where it all begins.
Traditionally, parents have made all the choices. We choose what’s going to be prepared, and when and where we’re going to eat. We also tend to hound our kids to eat.
“Try a few bites and you don’t have to eat anymore.”
“Finish your vegetables and you’ll get a treat.”
“Think of all the starving children who would love to have what you have!”
None of these statements honors the autonomy of the child. What I see is coercion in the first, bribing/rewards in the second, and shaming in the third. What’s a peaceful parent to do?? Here’s what!
So, you choose when and where to eat, you put the food on the plate, and then you trust your child to eat the items they want in the amounts they want. If they don’t try it all, that’s ok.
The Key to Getting Your Kids to Try New Foods
Exposure. That’s it. A 2016 study found that exposure alone drastically increases the likelihood that infants will eat a variety of vegetables for the greater part of their childhood. The same is true no matter the age of the child. The more often you introduce a food, the more likely your child will be to eat it.
I always try to make sure to include at least one item in each meal that I know my children will eat, and sometimes, that’s all they eat. It may be a piece of bread or a bowl of beans or miso soup. I don’t stress it, because I know they nibble on lots of nutrient-dense foods throughout the week, and I keep exposing them to common foods that they won’t yet eat. This hands-off approach paired with the obvious enjoyment they see in my husband and me while we eat means we will have adventurous foodies in time.
The less you intervene, the more likely kids are to try new foods in the future. You can even make a game of it between mealtimes by offering small amounts of new foods for them to taste and critique. You can also improve the likelihood your child will try a new food by inviting them to participate in the process of preparing and cooking the food. Many nights, I bring my kids into the kitchen with me to help cut food, stir pots, taste raw vegetables, and season our food.
Satter recommends structured meals and sit-down snacks. It’s important to prepare what you enjoy and include foods you know your children will like. You need not prepare separate meals for different family members. One meal eaten together is the best way to encourage eating competence in children. Families meals are crucial to the long-term physical and mental health of kids. Check out the research behind the value of family meals here. When you eat together, try to minimize distractions by creating a food only zone. No homework. No electronics. No pets. Just people, the food in front of them, and the full-bodied conversations that can happen in an intimate social space.
Consistent, expected meals plus scheduled snacks help children better manage their hunger and satiety. Plan three meals a day, making sure not to skip any. If your child isn’t particularly hungry at a given meal, that’s ok. Accept whatever form of “no thank you” your child can communicate, if they aren’t ready to eat. A snack time will come along shortly and provide the energy your child needs. Remember, your child is the only person who knows how much or how little their body needs to eat. This is not information you are privy to.
Snacks are meals too, just smaller. Snacks should be available at planned times and include protein, fat, and carbohydrate to provide sustained satisfaction. Encourage your child to eat until they feel good and then head off to do another activity. Snacks should be timed to ensure that your child has a chance to get hungry for the next regular meal.
Nutrients and Forbidden Foods
One of the hardest ideas to release as a new Intuitive Eater is the idea that some foods are “better” than others. Go ahead and put that out of your mind. Food has no morality. On microscopic level, foods have varying levels of macro and micronutrients. Some foods are more nutrient dense than others. No single food has all the nutrients we need to thrive though. We need variety. That variety can include brussels sprouts, french fries, breakfast cereal, steak, oatmeal, apples, cabbage, cookies, quinoa, eggs, almond butter, cheese, candy, or any combination of any foods you enjoy.
Check out this fantastic talk by Tracy Brown, RD regarding food choice:
Offering your child a variety of foods at each meal that cover proteins, fats, and carbohydrates without judging them on what they actually eat is healthy. Since children have limited room in their stomachs for food, it makes sense to try to pack in nutrients, which is why things like whole, plant-based foods work so well. They pack a punch in less space. Win-win for little tummies.
BUT, no food can be off limits. If you restrict your kids’ food options, you risk creating a situation where your child will be compelled to lose control when a forbidden food becomes available. Your goal here is to encourage a relaxed relationship between your child and their food. Satter recommends:
Regularly including fatty, salty foods like chips and fries at meals, so your child will learn how to eat their fill without going wild.
Often, putting a single portion of sweets/desserts at each person’s place and giving your child the option of eating their treat before, during, or after the meal.
And, occasionally giving your child unlimited access to sweets during snack time. For instance, set a plate of cookies on the table and let your child go to town. These opportunities help children exercise their hunger and satiety cues in the presence of highly desirable food (something adults seriously struggle to do). An excellent example of this practice is the wise management of Halloween candy.
Break free from diet culture and guard your mind against fatphobia, so you and your family can experience the freedom and fun of Intuitive Eating! It’s so much easier and more fulfilling to raise a child to eat competently through self-regulation than it is to constantly hound kids about their food choices and their appearance. And, what is a peaceful parent but a guide who helps children find their own way in this world?
In Our House
It’s pretty wild around here. We recently switched to booster pads instead of booster seats/high chairs with straps, so the kids have freedom of movement. We’re practicing good table manners by modeling and coaching, but no one gets in trouble for getting up if they feel they can’t comfortably sit still. We just wait a moment and encourage the child back into their seat.
We follow Satter’s model as closely as we can, but we have to be flexible to accomodate eventualities… including children who don’t know or care about Satter at all. Beyond the food, the most important aspect of our approach, for me, is that we have banned moralizing at the table. We don’t comment on what our kids are (or aren’t) eating. We simply remind them to eat if they become distracted. When it seems they’re slowing down and starting to play with the food, we’ll ask “all done?” We don’t compare one child to the other either. Each child has complete authority over their own plates.
When they ask for food that’s either not on the menu or we don’t have at all, we don’t tell them they can’t have it because it’s bad for them. We say we’ll add it to the menu for the following week. We look for ways to say yes to their blossoming culinary palates while working to establish consistent routines and schedules that help them get in touch with their hunger and satiety.
Our practice of non-judgment around nutrition has resulted in young children who eat a wide variety of food and will try new foods without any prompting. Sometimes, I marvel at them and am surprised by the things they enjoy, but I remain calm and positive during mealtimes. Nothing to see here. We’re just enjoying our food!
Bonus: Simple Sweet Snack Recipe
Check out this low fuss recipe for homemade granola!
8 cups of rolled (old fashioned) oats
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup Just Foods Hemp Protein
1/4 cup Badia Health Seeds, Trilogy, Whole
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp salt
3 whole eggs, whisked (or flax eggs for a vegan option)
1 cup canola oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
Mix together dry ingredients in a large bowl, using clean hands to break everything down together.
Pour wet ingredients into the bowl and mix well. Again, I like to use my hands to make sure the dry ingredients get completely saturated. It’s messy but hands are your best tool here.
Smooth into a large baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 250F for about an hour or until the mixture browns and starts smelling a bit like oatmeal cookies.
Allow the granola to cool completely before storing. I store mine in a large rubbermaid cereal container. This recipe makes pretty chunky granola, so you may need to break large chunks up a bit.
I make a batch most weekends and we nibble on it throughout the week.
The countdown is on. Just one week to candy time! So, how does a Peaceful Parent manage the pounds of sugar coated sugar that will be making it home in little plastic pumpkins and ghostly bags?
Ok, y’all. You’ll love this trick! Here’s what you do: let them eat the candy. Yes! Let them eat as much candy as they want. Trust that your kids are learning their own limits. You see, children naturally know how to regulate their food intake… until an adult gets in the way. The less you interfere, the more able your child will be to have a positive relationship with food. I’ll be talking quite a lot about kids and food in the future, so stick around for more.
You’ll see me reference Ellyn Satter often, because I am a genuine groupie of her methods. Satter is a Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist who is the foremost expert in childhood nutrition (ok, that’s my own opinion but she’s seriously wonderful).
Here’s What You Do
Satter recommends letting your child eat their fill of the candy the night they get it and then again the following night. Then, whatever they have leftover gets divvied up over meal and snack times. Before meals, have your child choose a couple pieces of candy to place by their plate and enjoy with or after their meal, their choice. During snack times, give your child the whole caboodle to enjoy as long as snack time lasts. Taking this tack eliminates feelings of restriction and yearning for “forbidden foods” both of which can lead to a lifetime of disordered eating.
If your child is diabetic or has to restrict sugar for other medical reasons, please follow the advice of your doctor. But, if your concern is hyperactive kids, don’t worry, they’ll only be as hyper as you believe they are. And, if your concern is health, allow me to acquaint you with the concept of habituation, which refers to the way foods become less interesting the more available and frequently consumed they are. Candy will hold less sway over kids if they’re able to get the desire for it out of their systems when it is available.
But, it doesn’t need to be a completely hands-off free-for-all. Checking in with your child to help them learn to gauge their hunger level is valuable too. A visual like this hunger scale might be helpful:
Less Pukey, More Spooky
Rather than asking “haven’t you had enough yet?” try a quick briefing before it’s go time on the candy. Explain to your child that you want them to enjoy as much candy as they want to eat, but that you don’t want them to feel icky. Make sure they know that they’re going to get every last piece of candy they want whether that’s at once or over a few days, so there’s no need to stuff themselves sick.
You might show them the hunger scale and ask them to identify where they are before they start eating. Then, ask which number they want to hit before they stop eating. If the child says 10, you might remind them that throwing up doesn’t feel good at all and encourage them to downgrade that number to something less uncomfortable. After a little while, check back in. Have them pause from eating and check on how their tummy is feeling. Where are they on the scale now? How close are they to the number they picked to stop at when they first started enjoying their candy? If it’s time to stop, remind them that you’ll be pulling all the candy out again tomorrow, so they have something awesome to look forward to.
There you have it! You can stop policing that candy and take the opportunity to relish in your child enjoying one of the wonderful experiences of childhood knowing that you’re building fantastic eating skills for life.
As an aside, I’m figuring I don’t have to urge you not to play upsetting pranks on your children, like telling them you’ve eaten their Halloween candy, but I wanted to make sure that was said. It hurts my heart every year to see little kids crying on YouTube videos, because their parents have told them a lie to garner laughs and likes. Instead, you can let it be a fun experience and an educational one too.