By Alex Raymond, RD, LD, CEDRD
Most parents hope their child will grow up with a positive sense of self and a positive body image. And most parents wish the best for their children and dread the day their children believe there is something “wrong” with their bodies. Or the day some kid at school makes fun of them for the way they look.
But our culture is drenched in diet talk and negative body talk. And kids are learning about weight loss at much younger ages. Mass media and social media expose kids to diet talk and weight stigma early and often. The tricky part is, parents can’t prevent any of this from happening.
However, parents can absolutely promote a positive body image in their kids. I’m going to discuss a bit about what body image is and how loved ones can foster a positive self-image in children.
What is body image?
Body image is how we perceive ourselves when looking in the mirror or when thinking about how we feel in our bodies at a certain moment. It can also be how we think others perceive our bodies. Body image has little to do with what we actually look like. It can also change in an instant. Think about it. Have you ever had a day where you woke up feeling great and loved how your body looked? But then maybe a co-worker makes a comment or you see yourself in a certain angle, and then you feel terrible about your body? In reality, your body hasn’t changed much (or at all), yet it suddenly seems “wrong.”.
What is positive body image?
I often hear positive body image described as liking the way that you look. While that may be part of it for some people, body image is more about how we feel in our bodies than how we actually look. Positive body image is knowing that your body is good no matter how it looks. And knowing that you are not defined by how your body looks. That your worth is actually not based on your body at all. This is so important to remember because it allows us to find peace outside of our physical appearance.
Why is positive body image important for kids?
Kids are becoming concerned about their bodies younger and younger. It makes sense with the culture we live in. Having a positive body image is important for kids, teens and young adults because feeling good about one’s body leads to more positive mental health, physical health and confidence. It allows individuals to feel empowered and comfortable in their skin.
Do parents influence body image? What can parents do to support positive body image in their kids?
Parents absolutely influence their kids’ body image! I read a quote recently by More Love’s founder, Ginny Jones. It reads “We don’t need to have a perfect relationship with our own bodies to raise kids who are free from body hate.”
I love this. I think so many parents put pressure on themselves to be the perfect role models. Parents put blame on themselves if children struggle with mental health issues. And I feel this is even more common in eating disorder treatment. So many parents ask me if the eating disorder was “their fault.” Spoiler: it’s not. There are many reasons why an eating disorder develops and parents are not to blame.
Parents cannot control exactly how their kids will experience their bodies. And parents may struggle with body image themselves. Despite these facts, it’s still 100% possible for parents to foster body confidence.
Tips for raising a child with better body image
- Talk about what you like about your body, even if you have to fake it a bit. “I love my legs because they help me to dance!”
- Give personality-based compliments, not appearance-based ones. For example, say “I love the way you light up when you start singing,” instead of “you’re so pretty.”
- Answer questions about your own body with neutrality and positivity (if you can). For example, maybe your child comments on your “big belly.” Or maybe they mention you have bumps on your legs. Say why you appreciate these things. (Yes, I do have a big belly and it allowed me to have you!)
- Answer questions about other people’s bodies with neutrality and positivity.
- If your child calls someone else “fat,” resist the urge to say “that’s mean! Don’t call people that word!” Because in reality, many people are fat. Fat is a descriptor, like eye color and height. Don’t make “fat” into a bad word, but do educate your child about using the word “fat” respectfully.
- Help your child write a thank you note to his/her body. What does his/her body do that’s so cool?!
Adolescents and teens
- If your teen says, “I’m so fat (or ugly)” Resist the urge to say, “no you’re not, you’re beautiful!” This can be so hard to do! I think it’s a gut reaction for most of us. If you respond with “no, you’re beautiful,” that implies that fat is bad and not beautiful. It also implies that looking a certain way is important (reminder: we are worth more than our looks). Instead, respond with curiosity about what they mean when they say that.
- Have conversations about body ownership and consent. This is SO important for teen girls AND boys.
- Encourage them to follow a diverse set of body-positive activists on social media to diversify their feeds and help them gain exposure to people in a variety of body sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities.
- Encourage self-care and listening to the body for cues about when to rest, eat, move, and more
- Check in with them about body image. How do they feel about their bodies? Would it be helpful to talk to someone about body image?
- Encourage them to get involved in social justice movements that interest and excite them and give them experiences with people in different bodies.
- Encourage your young adult to express themselves through art, fashion or music so they can express themselves and learn to feel comfortable being themselves.
Want more ideas? Download my free Body Image Workbook.
Alex Raymond, RD, LD, CEDRD is an eating disorder dietitian in private practice in College Park and Columbia, MD. Alex specializes in treating individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. She practices from an intuitive eating model and enjoys working with individuals to improve body image. She is a passionate Health at Every Size © advocate and anti-diet dietitian. Alex provides eating disorder nutrition counseling in College Park and Fulton, MD. Alex’s College Park office is walking distance from the University of Maryland. Contact Alex by visiting www.couragetonourish.com/contactus or follow her on Instagram: @courage.to.nourish