Deb is a freelance writer and mom. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, toddler son and a sweet but neurotic corgi. Deb is a runner who has completed two marathons and countless other races. She is also a certified yoga instructor. She blogs regularly about parenting and life as a young urban professional mom at Urban Moo Cow.

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Five Ways to Promote a Positive Body Image

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, 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.”

Adolescent Body Image

Photo credit: imagerymajestic

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 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.

Be present

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?


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Comments (11)

  1. Pingback: - Eating Disorders and Adolescents

  2. Pingback: Summing Up My Week… (06/09/13-06/16/13) | Let Me Start By Saying…

  3. Rachel 06/13/2013 at 12:46 pm

    Knowing that I am the biggest influence on my daughter around the issue of weight makes me feel more in control, but I have a hard time believing it. There is just so many other influences to fight, particularly the media.

  4. Kimberly 06/13/2013 at 5:57 am

    Thank you! Sometimes I forget that I should be focusing on his accomplishments more. I grew up being criticized for every little thing. I vowed that I would never be that parent, but every once in a while, I can hear that voice come out. I want my son to love who he is.

  5. Kristi Campbell 06/11/2013 at 9:46 pm

    My favorite part of this was the reminder to focus on accomplishments and not on appearance. As a mother who had my first child at 40 (barely), I am constantly self-conscious and struggle so much. I appreciate the reminder and can honestly say that your words have made me take a step back and remember that to my young son, right now I am the role model. I am what is safe and beautiful. It took reading this to remember that. Thank you.

    • Deb Gaisford 06/12/2013 at 8:01 am

      I know…. we can all take small steps. Even one or two of the things on this list would be a start. Hang in there. Just knowing is the first and hardest step. xo

  6. Sarah Almond 06/11/2013 at 9:41 am

    I’m terrible about referring to certain foods as bad, because we’re supposed to be avoiding artificial sweeteners whenever possible (my son is ADD) and I have a phobia of my kids eating too much sugar and their teeth falling out! I need to be more aware of how I refer to things.

    Now off to read Kim’s post! Everything she writes is great! 🙂

  7. Kim Bongiorno of LetMeStartBySaying 06/10/2013 at 7:51 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing my story with your readers.
    I think the #1 factor is role modeling. Really, I do.
    It pains me to listen to so many lovely women insult themselves, constantly. “I HAVE to lose 10lbs before my vacation!” “UGH I could never wear that!” And, of course, the ever-present “fat.”
    I can’t tell if some of these women are being jokingly self-deprecating, and can just work on stopping that habit, or if they all really don’t see how beautiful they are. How valuable and attractive they are.
    Our kids think we’re gorgeous, and they are (usually) made in our likeness. What does it say to them when we say WE’RE unattractive, when they feel like they’re looking in a mirror when they see our faces?

    Great food for though, Deb. Thanks again!

    • Deb Gaisford 06/11/2013 at 8:07 pm

      I agree about the role modeling. You also bring up a good point about the role of “habit” — it’s like we’re used to it, or we think saying it makes us more likeable in some way if we ‘relate’ on that level with other women. I just need to stop saying negative things about my body. Period.