Body image is suffering with shelter in place regulations. Our kids are isolated and lonely. And there’s nothing like a lack of control to make you feel bad about your body.
Our society is based on body hate and weight stigma. We experience fat shaming and fatphobia everywhere we go: in schools, on social media, at home, with friends, with the doctor … everywhere.
Feeling OK about our bodies is difficult in normal conditions. But coronavirus shelter in place directives have made body acceptance even more challenging. These are not normal conditions, and the opportunity for body hate is worse than ever.
If you are noticing that your child is feeling even worse about their body right now, you’re not alone. Our kids are hurting in so many ways, and many of them are displacing their fear, anger, and frustration onto their bodies.
Signs of bad body image
Often we don’t even notice bad body image because it’s so normal. But parents should pay attention to bad body image during shelter in place and coronavirus.
Here are some symptoms of bad body image:
- Looking in the mirror (and other reflective surfaces) more frequently than usual
- Pinching “imperfect” body parts (e.g. tummy, upper arms, thighs)
- Complaining about body parts (e.g. I hate my stomach, my thighs are disgusting)
- Following “fitspo” accounts on social media that feature conventionally attractive and very thin influencers
- Starting an aggressive fitness program that promises a flat stomach or other body part results in one week
- Talking about other people’s bodies (e.g. she is so fat, I wish I looked like her, her body is perfect)
- Skipping meals, eliminating foods, and engaging in other diet behaviors
These signs of bad body image can ramp up quickly, so parents should pay attention to their children’s baseline behavior and take notes of any new behaviors that may be reason for concern.
The trouble with bad body image
Having a bad body image is so normal in our society that many people don’t realize how harmful it is. We take for granted the idea that young people, especially girls, will hate their bodies. But bad body image is not benign. It is associated with the following negative outcomes:
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Higher chance of developing an eating disorder
- Poor performance at school/work
- Distraction from intellectual and creative pursuits
- Relationship problems
- Increased chance of substance abuse
- Social withdrawal
Negative body image can derail the most vibrant and passionate person. Because when we turn our passion on changing our bodies, we no longer see the larger opportunities beyond our body.
Because of this, parents who help their kids have a positive or neutral body image can make a huge impact on their child’s life success and satisfaction.
Bad body image is normal in our society
Even in the best of times, our society breeds body hate.
It’s no secret that we think larger bodies are bad and should be controlled. And even people in smaller bodies worry constantly about their weight and appearance.
It is extremely rare for a young person to feel good – or even neutral – about their body. Almost all of them would like to change some aspect of it.
Our collective body hate did not come from nowhere. We believe that small bodies are better and healthier. But this isn’t based on fact. Our beliefs have been shaped by the massive ($72 billion) diet industry, combined with the fashion and beauty industries. Their success is based on convincing us that none of us is good enough and we need their products to be better.
Powered by traditional, online, and social media, these industries have ensured that almost nobody feels as if they can accept themselves as they are. We all feel pressure to aspire to unattainable beauty standards.
How parents can improve kids’ body image
Parents can have a big impact on their kids’ body image. How we feel about our own bodies, how we talk about other people’s bodies, and how we respond to our kids bad body image is important. Here are some key points:
1. Work on your own body image
As we said, bad body image is completely normal in our society. That means that unless you have done significant work on your own body image, it’s likely that you have bad body image.
We are most effective as parents when we model what we want them to do. When they are babies, we show them that we don’t want to touch the hot stove, and they follow our lead. It’s the same with body image.
Learn to accept your own body and your child is more likely to accept their body.
2. Don’t talk about other people’s bodies
It’s a national pastime to criticize other people’s bodies. This behavior encourages body comparison. It also shows our kids that bodies are objects that should be judged.
We don’t want our kids to see their bodies as objects, so we want to avoid treating other bodies as objects.
Notice how often you point out something that you think is “unattractive” or “strange” about another person’s body. It may be while you’re out walking, when you’re watching TV, or anywhere else.
No matter what the situation is, button your lips and do no comment on another person’s body, beauty, face, or physical appearance.
You can preach body acceptance all day and night, but if you judge other people’s bodies, that’s what your kids will learn.
3. Talk to your kids about their bodies
Parents need to learn to talk to their kids about bodies and body image. But most of us don’t know how to do this. We find ourselves spewing useless comments like “your body is beautiful,” or harmful comments like “you’re not fat, you’re chunky.”
Have an ongoing conversation in your household about bodies. Talk about how larger bodies are equally deserving of respect. Tell your kids that our bodies do not define who we are, how successful we will be, or what we will do with our lives. Become media literate and teach your kids to spot weight stigma in the media.
This can be challenging, but it’s well worth it. Take some time to stretch your understanding of body politics. The more you can promote body acceptance, the greater chance your kids have of feeling OK about their bodies.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.
If you need some more help understanding body acceptance, I recommend this book: Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Linda Bacon & Lucy Aphramor