As children, we were often taught our parents' body beliefs through their behaviors. When my mom held her stomach after a delicious meal of mashed potatoes with butter, chops, and all the trimmings, I knew she thought she shouldn't have eaten all that food. When my dad shook his head in disappointment at the neighbor's "fat" new bride, I got confused as to why he loved me when I was chubby.
Outside of the home, we have the media taunting us with unrealistic body images, which clearly have detrimental effects. Approximately 91 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape. But the ideal and the reality don’t necessarily match. Most models, for instance, weigh an average of 23 percent less than a typical woman. But 20 years ago, this difference was a mere 8 percent.
While wanting to help our children combat body image issues is admirable (and necessary), we may be missing the point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel good in our bodies. What's wrong is that our culture says that to feel good, you have to be a certain body size.
Here are five healthy ways to encourage healthy body image in children:
1. Become a body image role model
Commit to treating your body the way you would want your children to treat theirs. Have compassion for the lumps and bumps and the aging process (oh the aging process, but that’s another article), and remove all rules around food. Instead, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.
2. Validate children's desire to feel good
We all have the right to feel comfortable in the bodies we reside in. Don't pretend that shouldn't matter to your kids. Honor that desire, relate to it, and remind your kids that there are other elements to feeling good about ourselves, such as our minds, our spirits, and our relationships (including the one we have with our bodies).
3. Teach children to listen to, honor, and trust their bodies
Body image struggles start with fear and lead to us disconnecting from and ignoring our body signals. As parents, we can positively reinforce the incredible intelligence of our bodies. Our bodies know what they need. Teach children that if they listen to their bodies carefully, they can trust them. When we trust our bodies, it keeps us healthy, strong, and at the best size for our unique selves. Focus on this relationship with our bodies, and food choices will follow.
4. Teach children how to spot body negativity
My girls really do get confused about the messages that they get outside of the home around food and their bodies, even from strangers. Be diligent in undermining the negative messages. Reiterate that your children need to build their relationship with their body and the food they put in it. Doing this will help them build trust with their bodies, instead of ignoring them.
5. Broaden the definition of “beautiful”
It's time to redefine what is not working for us and, in turn, for our kids. Get a pen and paper and ask your children what “beautiful” means to them. Remind them that there is no right or wrong. Write it down. Now, ask them the following questions: What is your favorite color? What is your favorite hobby? What is something you like about someone the most (not about their body)? What are things that make you feel good about yourself?
Sometimes, body image issues can turn into eating disorders. During my advocacy work, I have seen many parents question their role in their child’s illness, and I’ve seen their personal heartbreak because of it. Most importantly, parents ask how they can become a part of the solution.
Dear parents, be the change you want to see in your children.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder, the Eating Recovery Center has established The Family Support Center, a new, innovative online platform especially for families and caregivers of eating disorder patients.
Robyn Cruze is an author of Making Peace with Your Plate, a popular speaker, the National Recovery Advocate and online community manager for Eating Recovery Center.