I’ve been struggling with body image issues lately, as age, baby weight and lack of time/freedom to work out have begun to catch up with me. Yet as a mom, I am acutely aware of how much I unconsciously model behavior for my 17-month-old son every day. Already he mimics my laugh, the way I talk on the phone, the way I say “ahhh” after I drink sparkling water.
I do not want to teach my son to scrutinize and insult his body the way I do mine. I do not want him to grow up thinking this is “what women do”…or should do.
There is a wealth of research describing the increasingly negative body image of adolescents. And it’s not just about girls. According to a study of 2,793 adolescents published November 2012 in Pediatrics, “Muscle-enhancing behaviors were common… for both boys and girls. For example, 34.7% used protein powders or shakes and 5.9% reported steroid use. Most behaviors were significantly more common among boys.” (emphasis is mine)
The question is, what can we, as parents, do?
Walking the Talk on Body Image Issues
“Children pick up on comments about dieting concepts that may seem harmless,” according to an article on WomensHealth.gov, a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, called Body Image and Your Kids.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida goes further in an article from 2007 about the role of mother-daughter relationships in determining body image.
“Research reveals that best friends and mothers have the biggest influence on whether or not a girl will use risky behaviors to lose weight. In fact, daughters whose mothers encourage them to lose weight are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies.” (emphasis is mine)
Yet, promoting a healthy body image is not only about the things you say; it is also the things you do. The article continues, “a mother’s opinion of her own body can also influence her daughter’s access to healthy diet in the home. Mothers who are more concerned with their own bodies are more likely to restrict their child’s eating, even at early ages.”
What Can Parents Do to Promote a Positive Body Image?
So how do we help our children develop a positive body image and relate to food in a healthy way? I pulled together some tips from WomensHealth.gov and Canadian Women’s Health Network. Here is what they say.
Teach the biology
Make sure your child understands that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty and adolescence. Teach your child to listen to her body and trust its messages. It is okay to eat if he is hungry.
Create a healthy food environment
Allow your child to make some decisions about food, while making sure healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available. Help your children understand nutrition and the health benefits of various foods, instead of telling them a food is “good” or “bad” and leaving it at that. Try not to use food as a reward or punishment.
Focus on accomplishments, not appearance
Compliment your children (and partner!) often on their strengths, talents, accomplishments, efforts and personal values instead of focusing on weight, size or appearance.
Be a role model
As expected, experts warn us to practice what we preach. Consider not having scales in the house and avoid commenting on your own weight concerns. Try not to use words like “fat,” “ugly,” or “disgusting” to describe yourself or others. Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape.
But also be a role model for a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthy snacks. Initiate family activities that involve getting outside the house and being active. Show your children that size or appearance doesn’t limit your own activities and should not limit theirs.
Make time to talk to your child about what is going on in his or her life. Try to create a home environment where he or she will feel safe to talk to you about body image issues. Watch television with your child and discuss the media images you see.
Finally, I read a brilliant post by Kim Bongiorno called “Her Future Fat Thighs” that put all of this advice into action. In it, she recounts how she turned her five-year-old daughter’s question about her mother’s “fat legs” into a positive lesson on the changing female body. I encourage everyone to read it immediately.
What are your thoughts on encouraging a positive body image in your children?