This story was contributed by Tamsin Jordan, MS, RD. Follow her @nutritionbytamsin.
We all want our kids to be happy and healthy. A large part of that is encouraging them to love themselves just the way they are. Unfortunately, the societal pressure on children to look a certain way has never been stronger. So, what can parents do to encourage a healthy body image? The answer isn’t straightforward—but here are some things to realize about these issues, and a few tips to encourage a healthy relationship with food.
Why is body image so important to be cognizant of early on?
The growth of social media and the rise in internet use by kids, has increased their exposure to idealistic views on body shape. You only have to turn on the TV and you’ll see advertisements for weight loss pills and procedures. Over time, this continued exposure can manifest as an internalized stigma. Children are particularly susceptible to this messaging. Research links internalized weight stigma in children to poor mental health, increased stress response and disordered eating patterns later in life.
At what age should we start talking to our kids about body image?
It’s never too early to start instilling a healthy body image. Research shows that children as young as 2 years can start developing a sense of their own bodies and how they compare to others. The root of weight concerns, and body-related beliefs later in life usually starts in childhood. One study showed that among a group of 5 year old girls, a third showed signs of dietary restriction and half showed that they internalized the thin ideal.
Why is it important to recognize that both girls and boys can struggle with body image?
While rates of body dissatisfaction are higher in girls, the number of boys struggling with eating disorders is on an upward trajectory. Whereas girls consider thinness as an ideal, culture dictates that boys should have a muscular body frame as a sign of masculinity. Cultural bias makes it much less likely that boys will seek help for body image concerns. It’s therefore important to be aware that boys can struggle with this issue. The good news is – once identified, boys are just as likely to respond positively to treatment than girls.
What are some ways to encourage positive body image?
- Celebrate character, rather than appearance
Our culture has reinforced the notion that self-worth and appearance are somehow connected. This mental construct can emerge from an early age. To counter—highlight your child’s character qualities, rather than their appearance.
For instance, instead of saying, “you look so pretty today” maybe switch to, ” I love how you’re getting kinder by the day”.
- Encourage body acceptance
No matter how much we diet or exercise, there are limits to how we can change our body. Highlighting this fact to your kids will help them to accept their bodies and not strive for unrealistic ideals. Talk about how bodies come in a range of different shapes and sizes, and that is one of the many things that make us unique.
- Put down the iPad
Teaching your kids to be a more “mindful” eater is one way to help foster a healthy relationship with food. This involves being more aware and appreciative of the eating process, from preparation to consumption. For younger children, try simply removing the iPad from the dinner table (easier said than done, I know!). For older children, encourage them to help with food prep or even growing their own food. The goal here is for your child to be more in tune with their hunger and satiety cues – thus reducing overeating.
- Resist categorizing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Some foods may be healthier choices than others. However, categorization reinforces that what people eat, reflects on their values and character. Instead of demonizing certain food, talk about the importance of moderating intake. Instead of a blanket ban on candy, soda and cookies, try limiting them to 1-2 servings a week. Present them as part of a regular meal, rather than a reward or special treat. Provide context about why they should limit some foods. Link these to health reasons, rather than weight. For example, instead of saying, “If you eat these foods, you’ll get fat”, try saying, “You need to limit these foods because they are not very good for your heart.”
- Explain how food impacts our health
Explain to your kids why we need to eat and how our diet impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. While it is true that obesity can increase your risk of certain diseases, the assumption that weight is a direct indicator of health is not always true. Other factors such as blood pressure, blood sugar levels and insulin resistance tend to be better predictors of overall health status.
Using relatable language when explaining the health benefits of food can be helpful. For instance, instead of saying, “you need to eat veggies to stay healthy”, perhaps try, “it’s important to eat your carrots so you can “see in the dark” or “drinking your milk will give you strong bones like iron man.”
- Redefine weight related terms
Thanks to our pervasive diet culture, there are some words that have negative connotations related to weight. These include, “calories”, “fat” and “carbs”. Try to define these terms in a more weight neutral way. Explain that we need calories to keep us energized. Fat to fuel our brain and carbs to run a marathon removes the negative label and brings neutrality to the words.
- Be an example of what it means to be happy with your body
Even if you’ve never discussed it with your kids, they are likely to know if you are unhappy with your appearance. Overcoming dissatisfaction with your own body is important for encouraging your kids to have a healthy body image. You don’t need to get to a place where you “love” your body. What is more important is that you neutralize your language around body image. Avoid using negative words around food, or highlighting other people’s appearance, even if it’s a compliment.
While some of these tips may be easier to integrate into your daily routine than others, they all strive for the same goal. Highlighting the importance of health rather than weight and encouraging your kids to be confident in themselves, regardless of what they look like.
Tamsin Jordan is a Registered Dietitian, wellness expert and mom living in NYC.
She provides one to one nutritional counseling to people of all ages, with a specialty in women’s health, bariatrics, diabetes and digestive health. She writes about nutrition and wellness topics on her blog: www.tamsinjordan.com you can also follow her on Instagram: @nutritionbytamsin