Eating disorders are much more complex than body image, but negative body image is a hallmark of an eating disorder. We live in a culture that is strongly weight-biased and fatphobic. Our cultural messages assert that a person is healthier, smarter, and more worthy if they live in a smaller body. Weight stigma is very harmful to all of us, but it is especially damaging to people who live in larger bodies and people who are susceptible to eating disorders.
Parents who want to prevent eating disorders or help a child who has an eating disorder to recover can learn about weight stigma and adopt a Health At Every Size (HAES), weight-neutral, and body positive attitude.
Quiz: Are You Body Positive?
Most of us have assumptions about body size, eating behaviors and exercise patterns. To help our child develop a healthy body image and recover from an eating disorder, it can be very helpful if we challenge our own assumptions about bodies, weight, and health. Take this quiz to see how you do.
Body positive parenting
Many of us make body-based, weight-stigmatizing comments without even thinking of it – it’s just a part of our culture. But if a parent can learn to stop these automatic statements, we can help our child reduce the focus on the body as a signal of “goodness” and even “health” and instead help them recognize that they are inherently worthy.
Here are some things we recommend parents stop doing to create a body positive environment for their children:
1. Do not provide feedback on a body part
Look at those abs! She has a tummy roll. Your legs are so strong. You have such a tiny waist. She has huge thighs.
Don’t talk about body parts in relation to your own body, your child’s body, or any other person’s body. Human beings are much more than any one part of themselves. While these comments may seem positive of “factual,” they bring the focus onto the body, and one of our goals in eating disorder treatment is to bring the focus deeper into the self.
2. Do not provide feedback on weight loss
You’ve lost weight! She lost a ton of weight last year. You look great – did you lose weight?
We need to stop assuming that weight loss is a positive thing that we can openly make comments about. It may seem normal to mention that someone has lost weight, but the assumption that weight loss is always a positive supports some of the fundamental disordered thoughts that drive eating disorders.
3. Do not provide feedback on physical appearance
That’s so slimming on you. I look fat in this. That’s really flattering. That shirt makes her look huge. That belt makes her waist look tiny.
When we comment on clothing as either “flattering” or “not flattering,” what we are really saying is that everyone should aspire to look thin. This draws attention to body features and hiding parts of ourselves to appear more conventionally attractive. It’s best not to comment on the physical appearance of ourselves, our children, and other people.
4. Avoid feedback on eating and exercise behaviors
You’re so healthy for running every day. She’s such a good/healthy eater. She eats like a pig. He’s a total slob.
Our culture has promoted many unhealthy ideas about eating and physical behavior. Basically, we believe that people who are thin eat only “healthy” foods and exercise regularly. This is not actually true, and the only information we gain by looking at someone is our own level of weight bias. We need to stop praising “health” behaviors to help our child find an intuitive way to relate to their body that involves eating foods that make them feel good and exercising in ways that bring happiness, not pain.
Body positive resources
Body positive parenting can help our children avoid and/or recover from an eating disorder. It’s OK if this is all new to you – there are a lot of resources available to help! The first step in becoming body positive is dropping weight stigma. One of the best resources for doing this is reading Health at Every Size and/or Body Respect by Linda Bacon. Also, check out the Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison. For a powerful and personal take on body positivity, read You Have the Right to Remain Fat, by Virgie Tovar.
When “body positive” is not body positive
Many brands and influencers have noticed that the term “body positive” has gained social traction. As a result, they are taking on the term as a marketing opportunity rather than truly understanding the purpose of the movement. Specifically, Instagram is littered with accounts that use the hashtag #bodypositive or one of its variations, but they still espouse diet culture and are decidedly not weight-neutral. Some signs to look for to establish whether a brand or influencer is truly body-positive include:
- Are the models/images primarily showing white, cisgender, able-bodied, Photoshop-enhanced, conventionally attractive (thin) people? Body positivity is about inclusivity, so you should see a range of skin colors, gender identities, and body sizes, shapes, and abilities.
- If it’s a clothing brand, does the brand offer sizing above 12/14? If a brand says it is “body positive” but does not provide clothing for people living in larger bodies, then it’s co-opting the movement for marketing purposes.
- Does the text contain messages about weight loss and/or weight maintenance as if that is a good/positive/healthy pursuit? Body positivity must operate from a weight-neutral perspective.
- Does the messaging suggest that the pursuit of health is defined as eating a certain way or exercising? Body positivity must operate from a behavior-neutral standpoint and not place value judgments on food choices or exercise behaviors.