Kids are exposed. They’re exposed nearly everyday to unrealistic body-weight ideals and photo-shopped physical expectations. Through the media, peer judgments at school, and spoken/unspoken messages at home, kids are absorbing these messages beginning at a very young age. It’s incredibly disheartening to you hear your child say “I’m Fat”, and unfortunately this is becoming more and more common. The Common Sense Media report: Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, found that twenty-six percent of five year olds recommend dieting as a solution for a person who has gained weight. By age six, children are aware of dieting and may have even tried it, and by the time kids reach age seven, one in four has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior.
In families across the country, there is a big push to understand the roles that body image and food play in our children’s lives. How do we get kids to share their ideas, perceptions and experiences without reinforcing shame? We compiled a list of 10 important ways we deal with this everyday, both in our therapy practices and on the home-front.
Here are 10 conversation-sparking tips to encourage body positive language and help kids re-set body image ideals:
1) Listen up! If you hear your child using the “F” word, saying "I look fat in this" or some variation, really try to understand what this means for them. How do they define "fat"? Why is this bad? From whom or where have they heard this message? Knowing more about the meaning of this word for your child will help you integrate more body-positive language and thinking with them.
2) Beware of the schoolyard bully! Pay close attention when you hear your child criticize his or her body or clothes. This is often peer driven, and it's important to know if your child's feelings are being hurt at school, or it they're spending time with peers who are overly focused on body image.
3) Bite your tongue. As an adult, it's really important to avoid criticizing your own body in front of your children and to be a healthy-body role model. Drop the talk about losing weight or feeling "gross" in your clothes. This kind of dialogue sets the stage for kids to begin assessing and judging their own bodies by these standards, perpetuating the notion that looks and body weight define self-worth.
4) Bodies are more than just “skinny” or “fat.” Try using strong, curvy, muscular, lanky, fit, and healthy to define body types. Integrate these words into everyday conversations. Use these words with your children when you're looking at books, images, or magazines with different body types.
5) Leave the glamour mags out of reach! People magazine, Victoria Secret, Vogue, etc., are FULL of hyper-sexualized, overly thin, photo shopped images of women defining beauty standards in very unhealthy and persuasive ways. Lessening/shielding early exposure to these messages is better for children. Instead, introduce your children to The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty website which has exercises and videos you can do together to promote a healthy body image. Or, BodyImageHealth.org is a website devoted to cultivating healthy body image in children.
6) Re-Imagine the meaning of the word body. Help your child explore what a body really does, how the body really functions. For instance, it carries us everywhere we want and need to go - from school to work to our friends’ homes. Our body protects us from sickness, it can make us feel powerful and strong, it can float and swim us through oceans and swimming pools. Our bodies help us to think, create and grow our minds at school. The human body is an amazing, mysterious force!
7) Make bodies fun! Have your child come up with 3-5 positive words that describe their own body. Write them down and together come up with a song about your child using these descriptive words. Use your phone to video this silly song - it'll be awesome for a child to watch this back, and songs often have a funny way of wedging themselves into memory. This is a creative, fun way for children to absorb positive beliefs and descriptors.
8) What matters most. As the adult influence, be a living example of what's most important in your life. Be vocal about this, especially in front of your children. Do you value creativity, adventure, knowledge, curiosity, hard work, family, spirituality, physical strength, health, etc? Show your children through your actions and make it clear these are how you value your purpose and worth.
9) Connect your values to your child’s important people. Have your child identify a variety of people they know and/or love in their lives. Help your child see that naturally, each of these people have different body types. Have them describe what they like about each of these people, and reflect with them afterwards on how what they value in these people is not based on their size.
10) Appreciate your child’s body. Help your child explore and write down all of the things they like, love, or appreciate about their own body. Go ahead and take time to appreciate and share all the things you love about your own body too.