Sadly, negative body image is increasingly common in kids, and at younger ages, so we need to talk about it. We live in a body-conscious society that is cruel to bodies, especially if they don’t fit a rigid belief about what it means to be healthy. This of course has a terrible impact on kids in larger bodies. And a shocking number of kids of all sizes live in constant fear of “getting fat” and believe they are “bad” when they gain weight.
Kids have immature reasoning skills, and the fear of getting fat (which in our culture equals being “bad”) can quickly snowball into dangerous dieting and eating disorder behaviors.
While I don’t think our kids can avoid bad body thoughts entirely in our society, they can avoid developing a negative body image if we take careful steps to help them recognize that having worries, thoughts, and fears about their bodies and fat don’t mean they have to change their bodies and behaviors. Parents can help kids feel OK in a culture that constantly tells them they are not.
What is unhealthy body image?
An unhealthy body image means that you feel bad about your body and the way it looks. Since bodies are such an important part of how others perceive us, most people who have negative body image also have a negative sense of self. Negative body image is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, all of which are associated with low self-worth.
Here are some heartbreaking facts about body image from a report published by the Common Sense Media Group:
- More than half of girls and approximately a third of boys age 6-8 say their ideal body is smaller than their actual body.
- Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders among children under the age of 12 spiked 119%.
- By age 6, children are aware of dieting and may have tried it.
- 26% of 5-year-olds recommend dieting as a solution for a person who has gained weight.
- By the time they’re 7 years old, 25% of children have engaged in some kind of dieting behavior.
- 80% of teenage girls compare themselves to images they see of celebrities and, of that group, nearly half say the images make them feel dissatisfied with the way they look.
Why do kids develop body image issues?
There’s no single reason kids develop bad body image, but we don’t need to look far to see many influences, including:
- Parents and other adult family members who talk about the virtues of being thin, attractive, and “healthy” which is often a code word for “not fat”
- Siblings, cousins, and peers who tease and bully larger kids and/or diet and exercise to lose weight
- Schools that weigh students and promote calorie counting programs
- Coaches and sports programs that conduct weigh-ins and assign tight-fitting, body-conscious uniforms
- Doctors who discuss weight as a problem in front of children during pediatric visits
- Media, ranging from billboards and magazines at the supermarket checkout to movies and social media that objectify bodies and promote a narrow body ideal
The seeds of bad body image are literally everywhere in our culture. Sadly, we cannot protect our kids from many of the negative messages about bodies. But we can counteract them by talking about body image and upholding strong boundaries at home.
How can I help my child with body image issues?
Parents have a lot of influence over a child’s body image. We can’t protect them from the vast cultural forces of weight stigma and diet culture. But we can set boundaries and have difficult conversations in our own homes to reduce the chances of our kids developing poor body image.
Here are 4 steps that will help your child’s body image:
1. Work on your own body image
You do not need to have a perfect body image in order to raise a body-confident child. But you do need to be actively exploring your own body image and how you relate and respond to weight stigma and diet culture. Almost all adults have internalized fear of fat and assumptions about what makes a body “healthy.” We’ve also made assumptions about what we need to do to be “healthy.” Many of these assumptions are false. Make sure you are exploring your faulty beliefs and repairing your relationship with your own body throughout your parenting journey.
2. Talk about bodies with respect
One of the big issues we have is that bodies are treated disrespectfully. All human beings, and therefore all bodies, deserve dignity and respect no matter what they look like. This applies to fat bodies, thin bodies, and every shape and size body. Dignity and respect for our shared humanity must be a core value in your home if you want to protect your child from bad body image. Have a zero-tolerance policy for body-shaming, fat-shaming, and health-shaming. All bodies are good bodies, and all bodies deserve respect!
3. Talk about the objectification of bodies to sell things
Bodies, particularly women’s bodies, are frequently objectified and used to sell products. In my neighborhood, we have a billboard promoting condominiums that features a headless woman in a bikini. Her faceless body is being used to sell housing.
This is just one of the millions of examples of bodies being used to sell products. The endless objectification of bodies solidifies in our kids’ immature minds the idea that bodies are objects to be manipulated and controlled rather than part of who we are as human beings – unique and deserving of dignity.
Given the ubiquity of body objectification in advertising, marketing, and media, it’s critical that you have constant conversations about body objectification. You need to consciously point out that marketers use bodies, but you perceive them as living, breathing, and essential to our humanity.
4. Tell them that their bodies will constantly change and grow
Body types are often presented as an end-state, a goal, something to achieve. But bodies are never in a steady state. Girls’ bodies change dramatically, and puberty sometimes begins as young as 8-9 years old. At this age, girls are not able to process their complex feelings about their bodies without careful and thoughtful guidance from parents.
Growth requires weight gain, and a child spends their first 18 years undergoing dramatic changes and substantial weight gain. Bodies continue to change throughout our lives. This makes sense: bodies are supposed to change! I think we forget this because we see perfectly-preserved models in the media all the time, but the average body will go through many changes throughout life. Let your kids know that their bodies are not meant to stay the same – they will continuously change, and that is healthy!
What do you say to a child with body image issues?
First, please make sure that you are talking about body image regularly. Don’t wait for your child to bring it up. Instead, talk regularly about body respect and maintain high standards for treating and talking about bodies as worthy of dignity, no matter what they look like.
If your child says something that indicates they have a negative body image, the most important thing is to not dismiss their feelings or try to distract them from having them. When parents avoid kids’ difficult feelings, kids internalize shame and anxiety about what is being avoided. They believe that there is something terribly wrong with them even though that’s not what parents intended.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid, dismiss, or distract your child from body image issues.
Your child will probably at some point tell you they hate their body or want to change their body with dieting or exercise. Here’s a simple response that you can use in almost any situation: “It sounds like you’re having a hard time right now, and that makes sense to me. Can you tell me more about what’s going on?”
Now listen and seek to really understand your child’s fears and worries. Don’t tell them they’re wrong or that their body is perfect or beautiful. Let them explore their feelings in your loving empathy (not pity).
Keep listening until your child has expressed themself and you sense that they feel deeply understood by you. Then you may want to say something like this:
“Honey, I know it’s so hard to live in a body in our culture. There’s a lot of pressure on bodies to look a certain way. I just want you to know that I really do understand that, but at the same time, I want you to remember that your body deserves respect and love. So when bad feelings, worries, and thoughts come up, that makes sense. But let’s never make decisions about how you treat your body based on those feelings and thoughts. Your body is good just as it is. You don’t need to mess with it or try to change it. You will have bad thoughts sometimes. Please remember this always: You’re wonderful just as you are.”
How to talk to your child about body image
Ignoring body size is like trying to avoid talking about race. Adults may pretend that it doesn’t matter, but children always sense the truth, which is that how we look influences how other people treat us.
It’s best to talk about body image regularly and without euphemism, because when we don’t talk about important things, kids assume there is something bad and shameful going on. Shame, more than anything else, is a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of mental disorders.
Talk about body image!
The bottom line is to talk about body image with your child regularly. You can do this by saying things like:
- Bodies are presented and used in the media to sell products, but bodies are not objects – they are a vital and unique part of each person.
- I appreciate how my body functions for me and I respect my body by treating it well and speaking about it with kindness.
- All bodies grow and change. And while it can be confusing, it’s all healthy and normal.
- In our family we will always speak with dignity and respect about bodies. We will not allow body shaming, fat shaming, or bullying of anyone based on their body.
- Having negative thoughts, feelings, and worries about your body is normal, but we shouldn’t make decisions about our health based on them. Bodies should always be treated with respect and dignity.
- Each body is important and amazing, but also everyone is much more than a body.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.