How to raise a body-positive kid

Raising a body-positive kid is a great idea for so many reasons, including lower risk of eating disorders and disordered eating. But perhaps the most important reason for raising a body-positive kid is that it means your child doesn’t hate their body. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Here are the five tips for raising a body-positive kid:

1. Teach them to ignore diet culture

Diet culture absolutely surrounds us. It begins with the belief that bodies can and should be controlled. Everywhere we go, we see and hear messages about controlling our bodies by controlling our intake (food) and output (exercise).

Even people who say they don’t believe in diets will still perpetuate diet culture by telling us that we need to eat less and move more to be healthy. Eat less/move more behavior will never change weight, because our bodies are finely-tuned to restriction and will drive us to consume more food if we begin restricting intake or increasing output (exercise). The body sees weight loss as dangerous famine conditions and will fight physically and mentally to regain lost weight plus a little extra to protect against the next famine.

The only way to intentionally lose weight is to create and maintain a state of body starvation. Most of us are able to lose weight short-term by putting our bodies into a state of starvation using diet behaviors, but the unfortunate outcome is that we regain the weight and lower our metabolic rate in the process. In fact, the most common outcome of intentional weight loss is that we weigh more five years later (Journal of the American Dietetic Association).

But it’s OK! Because it turns out that it’s all right for our bodies if we don’t ever diet. As long as we learn to listen to our intuitive hunger cues and move our bodies in ways that feel good and sustainable, our bodies will do a great job of maintaining the weight they are meant to be.

Our “natural” weight without dieting may not be (and probably won’t be) the weight that we would *like* our bodies to be, but that is completely beside the point. Our bodies are not meant to be controlled or starved. They are meant to be respected, nourished and cared for.

Diet behavior is the most significant predictor of eating disorder development. Moderate dieting in adolescence leads to a 4x increase in eating disorders, and intense dieting during adolescence leads to an 18x increase in eating disorders (The BMJ). If we want to raise kids who don’t have eating disorders, we can begin by not allowing diet culture in our homes.

Read More: Stop Supporting Intentional Weight Loss! Here’s the Science to Support a Non-Diet, Weight-Neutral Approach

2. Teach them not to listen to the food police

We live in a time during which everyone believes they have something important and valuable to say about food.

  • In the supermarket, every package and sign will tell you what makes that particular food good and “healthy.”
  • In the check-out line, you’ll be exposed to magazine covers filled with messages about “superfoods” and “healthy” diets.
  • At work and at your family reunion, people will rave about the latest fad diets (celery juice! cleanses! detox! raw-vegan!).
  • At the doctor’s office they will ask you whether your child consumes “enough” servings of dairy and “limits” sugar.
  • At school, your child will be asked to write essays about the “dangers” of chocolate milk.
  • On Instagram, you’ll read about more of those fad diets and see plates artfully arranged with “healthy” foods and recommendations for transforming “bad” foods into “healthy” food (e.g. cauliflower pizza crust).

Everywhere we go, people are telling us what we should eat, what we should stop eating, what we should substitute, what we should ban. The food police is breathing down our necks. Most of us grew up hearing that fat was bad for us, but now there are promotions around “healthy fats” and diets based on fats-first. Today the undisputed evil is sugar, but it seems that nothing is off the table – there are diets that vilify almost everything under the sun, including fruits and vegetables!

Fear of food and cutting out entire food groups is a major symptom of eating disorders, and yet foodphobia is everywhere. Parents must work hard to overcome the societal messages that constantly tell our kids that they can’t trust their bodies and instead help our kids listen to their appetite and cravings.

Of course we want our kids to have good nutrition. That’s why we will offer them fruits, vegetables, and every other food group (including pizza, cookies, and tacos!) so that they learn to pay attention to their own bodies, not the dangerous messages that surround them in our culture.

Read More: Foodphobia: why are there so many people restricting entire food groups in the name of health, and what does it have to do with eating disorders?

3. Teach them to take down body shamers

We live in a body-shaming society. Magazines, social media accounts, and television programs all revel in the opportunity to show before-and-after shots with the very obvious suggestion that being in a larger body is something that we must “overcome” in order to achieve a glowing “after” with a smaller body.

Body shaming is frighteningly common within families. Many people who have eating disorders report that their parents were their first body bullies, and the way they feel about their bodies is still impacted by things that their parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members have said about them.

Body shame is a symptom of an eating disorder, and body shame doesn’t come from nowhere. A child is not born hating their body. They are taught that their bodies are something that does not deserve unconditional respect and acceptance. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this well. One study showed that 97% of U.S. women had at least one “I hate my body” thought every day (Glamour).

The first thing parents need to do is make sure that body shaming is absolutely and unequivocally shut down in the family home. There is no room for body shaming at the dinner table, in the living room, or anywhere else in a child’s home.

Next, parents need to shut down body shaming family members. Speak to your fatphobic family members and let them know that you take body shaming seriously and that you will interrupt and leave if body shaming takes place while your child is present. It’s not rude to do this, it’s just good parenting.

Next, parents need to teach their children polite but firm ways to shut down body shamers everywhere. Kids need to learn to shut down or, at the very least, ignore body shamers at home, in the family, with friends and peers, at school, and in the doctor’s office. Work with them to develop some good interruptions, redirects, and straight-forward shut-downs.

For example:

  • Interruption: let’s talk about something else.
  • Redirect: hey, how’s your new job going?
  • Shut-down: please don’t talk about my body.

Read More: Are you fat shaming your kids? You’ve got to stop!

4. Teach them not to worry about BMI

BMI is an outdated but unfortunately ubiquitous measurement tool that is being greatly overused and abused in medical and school settings. Every time your child goes to the doctor, they will be weighed, and there is a good chance they will be weighed at school, too.

A weight focus can be extremely harmful since people who have eating disorders are typically obsessed with their weight. But BMI takes weight and makes it even more harmful by creating firm categories of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weights.

BMI was developed for population studies and was never intended to be used on an individual basis. That’s because it completely ignores individual body composition and natural body diversity. In fact, most athletes, actors, and people who work out a lot have an “overweight” and even “obese” BMI due to their body composition.

The fact that doctors and P.E. teachers use BMI as a way to start conversations about health is extremely upsetting, because BMI does not indicate health in any way. In fact, you might just as well use shoe size as a starting point for a health conversation.

Tying health to BMI is harmful because only a very narrow portion of our population fits within the confines of “healthy.” The vast majority of us fall outside of “healthy” weight based on BMI.

Read More: Top 10 Reasons Why The BMI Is Bogus

5. Teach them to fight back against fatphobia

Fatphobia is everywhere in our society. It’s having a huge impact on our children. One study found that nearly 50% of 3-6 year old girls were worried about being fat, and about one third of them said they wanted to change something about their body (British Journal of Developmental Psychology).

Fatphobic messages come from everywhere. It’s impossible to live in our society and not internalize a fear of being fat. This fear of being fat is externalized to others in the form of shaming others for their weight and feeling justified for hating fat bodies.

When viewed through the lens of discrimination, there is simply no justification for fatphobia. We have learned so much in terms of fighting against racism and sexism, but hatred of fat is deeply ingrained and is the only form of discrimination that we do openly and without shame.

Being afraid of fat gain lies at the heart of most eating disorders, and our society does nothing to help us recover from internalized fatphobia. Most of us who have eating disorders are living in average or larger-sized bodies. Most of us never become medically underweight. This means that we are praised for weight loss when it happens and feel ashamed when we gain weight.

Parents who want to help their kids avoid eating disorders, body hatred, and disordered eating must teach their kids to be intolerant of fatphobia. This means speaking out every time a fatphobic comment is made, not spending time with friends and family members who are fatphobic, unfollowing social media accounts that are fatphobic, not watching shows and movies that are fatphobic, and supporting body diversity.

It will take time for our society to understand that fatphobia is just as toxic as all other forms of discrimination, but you can be proud to have your child(ren) at the front of the movement towards body peace and acceptance.

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