15 Tips for Raising Kids with a Positive Body Image

Originally published on Babydust Diaries and cross-posted here with permission.


I wish I could say the above images were designed by me to make a point about fat-phobia and how poorly kids are treated when they don’t fit society’s ideal of size. Maybe I threw them together because I thought the SHOCK of seeing kids would help people understand how fat-shaming in adults can feel.

Alas, a group in Georgia actually produced these billboards in an attempt to end childhood obesity. Apparently they thought that shame was a good way to motivate kids to eat healthier and exercise. Clearly, they also are working under the delusion that size can somehow magically tell you about a person’s health.

I just want to vomit when, in a time where anti-bullying campaigns are making headway, some kids, skinny or fat, had to see this hateful and erroneous message in their towns. There are plenty of other bloggers that have written about how wrong these ads are (I love this one: What’s Wrong with Fat Shaming?).

Instead, I wanted to revisit a previous post of mine where I talked about how fat-shaming and the fallacy of size=health hurts everyone: skinny and fat. These billboards didn’t just do a bang up job of making fat kids the target of hate but they also put “being fat” in the minds of kids as being the absolute worst thing that could happen. Where do we think eating disorders come from? A self-hatred and fear so strong that young people starve, vomit, over-exercise, take dangerous pills, and otherwise slowly kill themselves is the root of eating disorders.

When we say “fat is bad” we instill that fear. And it works. Remember the study that showed 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat? How do you think this billboard effected those numbers?

It is not too late. As parents we have a powerful influence in how our kids grow up feeling about their bodies and their relationship to food. Many of them are things we can say (or not say) that have a huge impact.

  1. Never use the word fat in a derogatory way. Avoid media that does.
  2. Never imply that you can’t do something or wear something because of your size (“oh, not with these thighs!”)
  3. Never compliment others based on size (how many times is “you look so thin!” the ultimate compliment?)
  4. Point out the beauty of diversity in people and nature – nurture the idea that beauty is diversity. I love to say “what would the word be if all the flowers looked the same?”
  5. Avoid making physical activity about size or based on what you ate (“I have to jog off that cake”). Physical activity should be joyful.
  6. Do not label foods as “good” and “bad”
  7. Offer a variety of foods and model moderate indulgence and a wide consumption of foods. Eating should be joyful.
  8. Don’t make your kids eat if they say they aren’t hungry1. The refrain “finish your dinner!” should be stricken from the mommy lexicon. Better to let them trust their bodies than feel guilt about wasting food.
  9. Don’t deny your kids food if they say they are hungry. Another area where we often ignore our kids opinions and feelings. Try to make your pantry a “yes” pantry with a variety of healthy options that your kids can eat when they want.
  10. Never comment on the amount (too little or too much) that your kids eat.
  11. NEVER use food as a reward, incentive, or punishment! (this is SO abused among parents!!)
  12. Guard your children against negative body-image media – stop your subscriptions to women’s mags, don’t watch Biggest Loser, Toddler and Tiaras (focusing on appearance), and any variety of shows promoting appearance as a route to happiness.
  13. Avoid talking about a nutrionalist approach to food – disassembling “food” into fat, carbs, calories, and other things that need to be obsessed about and counted (difficult since it is explicitly taught in many schools).
  14. Encourage alternative means of self-esteem besides appearance – spirituality, values, empathy, effort, etc.
  15. Volunteer! It is much harder to think of something so superficial as size in the face of true plight.

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Paige Stannard is a Staff Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a former NASA research librarian happy to be home raising her 3 IVF babies after nearly a decade of infertility. She blogs about infertility, parenting, and women’s issues at Baby Dust Diaries as well as being the founder of the gentle discipline site ParentingGently.com and co-founder of the breastfeeding rights site NursingFreedom.org. She likes to cook and sew and has, in general, become her mother. Happily. Follow her on Twitter @babydust.