Boost Your Child's Body Image
By: Leigh Felesky
“I hate my hips.” “My arms are too skinny.” “If only I was thinner.” These are the kind of comments that some parents may hear as their children reach the pre-teen years – or even earlier. Those kinds of comments are not surprising, considering that adults themselves frequently talk negatively about their bodies, saying how they "feel fat" or "need to lose weight." Plus, with most fashion models being thinner than 98% of American women, many critics agree the media bombards children with unrealistic body images.
According to National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), having a negative body image can lead to everything from not wanting to go swimming (for fear of wearing a bathing suit,) to eating disorders, depression, low self esteem and obsession with weight loss. And these issues affect a large number of children. In recent studies, forty-two percent of elementary school students between the first and third grades said they want to be thinner and eighty percent of 10-year-old children said they're afraid of being fat.
Parents can make a difference. Here are seven things you can do to help encourage a positive body image.
Identify your own biases. Understanding your own attitude about body shape and weight will help you to foster a positive environment. "Practice taking people in general and women in particular seriously for what they say, feel and do, not for how slender or ‘well put together' they appear," advise researchers Michael Levine, Ph.D. and Linda Smolak, Ph.D. Former president of the National Eating Disorders Association, Doug Bunnel, Ph.D., agrees that being aware is important. One exercise he suggests: after you're done reading this article, for the next twelve hours pay attention to how often you're judging someone based on his or her appearance and weight. "If you're doing it regularly, you probably feel others are doing it to you, and it perpetuates the cycle," he notes.
Stay positive. In our weight-conscious society, first graders are already making distinctions between those who are overweight and those who aren't, says Bunnel. Kids are also exposed to stereotypes that overweight people aren't as smart or as good. Bunnel suggests treating negative weight and body shape comments the same as any other discriminatory remark, such as those based on race, religion or a disability.
Parents should also avoid making negative comments about their own bodies and those of other people. "For teenage girls especially," explains Bunnel, "comments about weight and shape can have an enormous impact. In particular, dad's comments can have a special power around girls who are going through puberty."
Use your body. Bodies aren't for decoration – bodies are for doing things! Talk to your kids about how our bodies get us where we want to go and help us to play, run, skate, go to school and explore life. So encourage your children to treat their bodies well, and to think about what they can achieve with them.
Put health first. Always use health, not weight-loss, as the reason to grab an apple rather than a bag of chips. Remind your children that healthy eating means feeling better. Levine recommends that you don't limit your child's caloric intake unless a physician requests that you do so because of a medical problem. Instead, focus on eating a wide variety of healthy foods, and eating only when you're hungry (rather than when you're tired or upset).
Analyze the media. Consider talking to your children about unrealistic media images. For example, talk about the ads you see. Ask such questions as, "How are the women and men portrayed in the commercials? Are they all thin? How are overweight people portrayed?" Teach you kids that in reality there are lots of different body shapes and the goal is to take care of yours with healthy eating and activity. For help, use resources from organizations such as Child and Family Canada, which has an activity that explores how the media affects perceptions.
Look for role models. Seek out positive body image resources by young people and share them with your children. For girls and their dreams.org, for example, has links to Web sites by girls for girls including Bodypositive.com. An associated pre-teen magazine, "New Moon," also has occasional body image articles. For boys, there aren't as many resources but while the concerns can be different – for example, in some cases wanting to look muscular rather than thin – many of the body positive messages are the same.
Seek help if needed. If you sense that your child's self esteem is excessively connected to how she sees her body, this could be of concern, according to Bunnel. One sign that a child has a negative body image could be that she avoids doing certain activities because she is uncomfortable about her body. If you are concerned, consult your doctor. Eating disorder information can be found at NEDA (Information: (800) 931-2237).