I get regularly get asked about how parents can help foster positive body image in their kids and I understand why they are asking, girls are hating their bodies and dieting as early as age nine, with majority on a diet by high school and eating disorders are on the rise. So this is what I recommend in order of importance, because like most everything else in parenting (insert eye roll), do as I say, not as I do just doesn’t cut it here.
1.) Do your own body image work.Hands down the greatest impact a parent can have on their child’s body image is to work on improving their own. Studies show that you can say all the right things to your child about their bodies, but if you aren’t demonstrating a positive attitude toward your own body, they are for more likely to have negative body image themselves as they grow older. Like anything else, it is what they pick up from us when we aren’t being intentional about it that impacts them the most. This is where I often get a deer caught in headlights look from moms. Really? Really. It’s not one of those topics where you can give them a book and have a couple of conversations, you gotta dig deep. The great news is that you both will benefit endlessly from this one. As any adult who still listens to their mom still talk about needing to lose weight or worse yet brings up their adult daughters weight can tell you.
2) Do your own weight bias work.It is not enough to be accepting of your own body, what you say about other people’s bodies also matters. Even if you think your body is hot stuff, if you are talking negatively about other bodies because of their size or shape, then you are teaching your kids to be afraid of one day having the body that you criticize. Or worse, hold bias against people that have larger bodies and possibly contribute to the systemic marginalization of people in larger bodies. Just like racism, if you have unchecked fat phobia in your life, you will likely pass it on to your kids and that can impact their health and others. Likewise, complimenting someone’s thin body or weight loss sends the message that there is a preferred body type, one is better than another. Show appreciation for all shapes and sizes of bodies and don’t elevate one over.
3.) Talk to your kids about it. Once you have addressed the other two things, you are like 90% there, now follow through by intentionally talking to your kids about their bodies and what they hear other people saying about bodies. Teach them the correct names of their body parts and talk about how amazing all of those parts are. Don’t talk about their weight, ehem, DO NOT TALK ABOUT THEIR WEIGHT, unless it is in response to what they have to say about it and then only reinforce that they are great just the way that they are. Make sure they hear from you that what they see in media images is not real (cue the side eye to all those people posing on Instagram). Use the word fat as a neutral descriptor and help your kids understand that any word with hate and fear behind it can be used to hurt someone else’s feelings and that is what has happened to the word fat. These are examples, these are not one conversation like “THE sex talk” but mini conversations that can happen on the regular.
Even if your kids are older, I don’t think it is ever too late to help them understand that you may have been misguided by our cultures grossly disproportionate emphasis on a thin ideal and discrimination against different body types. That you have been unkind for years to your body and/or others bodies, and you want to start practicing a different way. Trust me, it is never too late to benefit yourself, your kids, your grandkids and even their kids by doing body image work. Think, you can help stop a tradition of body hate in your family from being passed down.