Anyone who’s responsible for raising a child knows how scary it can be. House plants have to be kept alive. Pets have to be kept alive and happy. But kids? Kids have to be kept alive, happy, nurtured, supported, and so much more. And they come with their own little package of thoughts and issues, their own unique personality that doesn’t quite match yours or your partners, but instead is a little you, a little your partner, and a whole lot of something entirely unique to them.
It’s challenging, and so worthwhile. But today’s kids are up against some serious battles, and body image is a big issue for every one of them…not just the girls. According to recent research from Common Sense Media, “more than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as 6 to 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. By age 7, one in four kids has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior.”
How Body Image Issues Hurt Our Kids
“Children today…think that their own bodies are not acceptable, leading them to develop unhealthy body images. And unfortunately, such negative feelings can sap self-esteem and set the stage for eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.” — WebMD
It’s not all about weight and size. Poor body image can also contribute to the kind of self-worth issues that make it easier for abusive relationships to take root early. While abuse comes in many forms for many people, and is NEVER, EVER the fault of the victim, helping your kids understand the value and worth in their own unique bodies can give them the confidence to stand up for themselves faster, and help them develop and maintain long-term health habits.
Where Do Body Hang-Ups Come From?
Well, that’s a complicated answer. Media plays a big role in how children build their ideas about who they’re meant to be, how they’re supposed to look, and what the world expects of them. Advertising starts early showing kids how to be sweet, pretty girls or tough, muscular boys. Toy packaging, commercials, and even the actors in the shows they watch are all sending consistent messages about what an acceptable person looks like.
It’s also coming from us. Every time we frown at ourselves in the mirror, refuse to wear a swimsuit in public, or make negative comments about the bodies of others, we’re sending a clear message to our hyper-perceptive kids that there is a right way and a wrong way to have a body.
Signs to Look For
- Negative self-talk
- A constant focus on appearance
- Frequent comments comparing themselves to someone else
- Questions about how to diet or excessively skipping meals
- Quick changes in weight that aren’t easily explained by illness
- Excessive exercise
- Withdrawal from family, friends, or social activities
- Depression, anxiety, or other serious signs of low self-esteem (Don’t be afraid to get help here. A counselor or therapist trained in working with kids can be tremendously helpful.)
What Can We Do?
So where does all this negative messaging leave kids who don’t fit the ideal? Whether it’s about weight, height, complexion, disability, or anything else, no one can really expect to measure up to the crazy standards being set. It’s up to us as adults to reset the expectations for the children in our lives. We can do that by:
- Talking about food in body-friendly ways. Instead of talking about dieting, calorie restrictions, and cheat days, talk about the way foods make you feel. Talk about nutrients and energy. Focus on the positive benefits of healthy foods.
- Don’t equate exercise with weight loss. Not everyone can or wants to lose weight, and even if they do, studies have shown that weight loss is a pretty ineffective source of motivation for overall healthy habits. Instead of focusing on weight, talk about how exercise can make you strong and flexible, and how it helps your body function better.
- Get in front of the camera. Don’t always be the photographer. Get into the frame, show off your best smile, and know how much the kids in your life will cherish those images of you when you aren’t around. Set the example that how you live matters so much more than how you look.
- Smile at yourself. When you’re checking yourself out in the mirror, smile. Make a point to compliment yourself every day. Maybe you love your lipstick color, or your eyes look particularly blue, or your hair is doing that curl thing you like. Say it out loud, and you’ll not only set a great example for a watching child, but you’ll feel a lot better too.
- No more clean plates. Instead of teaching your child to finish every bite, help them recognize their own food cues. Kids do this pretty well when they’re younger, so try to let them lead the way when you can. Not hungry at meal time? Let them get by with something small. Feeling extra snacky? Bring on the baby carrots, grapes, or cheese they love.
- Give them autonomy. Let kids make some choices for themselves when it comes to their own bodies. Maybe that means letting them wear whatever they want when they can, even if you hate it. Maybe it means letting them choose which vegetable you’ll make for dinner. When they feel powerful and involved, they’ll be more likely to keep making healthy choices.
- Use the media. Don’t blame those terrible images and avoid them. It’s impossible to totally shut them out. Instead, use them to teach kids about Photoshop, advertising, and manipulation. When a kid sees a commercial, ask them to tell you what it’s trying to sell them. Point out how unrealistic advertising can be with extreme examples like someone with a balloon for a head. And call attention to the ads that do get it right.
- Explain how bodies work. Every body changes and grows over time, and helping your kids understand that bodies are all in a different phase can help them feel more comfortable with where they are right now. Make sure they know there is no one, perfect body.
- Avoid bad words. As hard as it can be in a society that throws these words around casually, try to steer away from descriptors that focus on body image. Ugly, too big, too skinny…they can all pass on a penchant for judgement that’s dangerously easy for a growing kid to internalize. When your kids use these descriptors about themselves or other people, don’t be afraid to call them out.