Want to Raise Your Kids with Positive Body Image? You’ve Got to Avoid Doing These 4 Things (And Try Some Others Instead)

Parent and child baking cupcakes

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Growing up, I got a lot of positive reinforcement from my parents about my appearance.

My mom always told me I was pretty (though as I became the kind of teenager who veered toward piercings and tattoos and dyed hair this, sentiment sometimes came with the caveat that I’d be so much prettier without those accouterments). And both my parents often talked about how fortunate my brothers and I were to be thin.

These comments were often made in direct contrast to how they felt about themselves and their own weight.

For example, my dad would make jokes referencing how he’d gained ten pounds with each of my mom’s three pregnancies. He also liked to tell the story of how as a chunky kid called Dick he had been terribly teased on a family trip to Germany where “dick” translates into “fat.” After that trip, he announced that he was never going by Dick again – and not for the reasons that modern Dicks tend to want to be known as Richards!

My mom’s conversations about weight were less anecdotal and more wistful. She would say things like, “I was never a slender kid like you. But now, I really need to lose weight!”

Though photos of my mom as a child don’t indicate that she was even chubby, I just accepted what she said. And while it’s true that as an adult, my mom’s weight fluctuated, the fact that I always thought she was a bit heavy probably had as much as her regularly mentioning this as it did with any reality about her size.

Of course, it’s not only comments that parents make about their own bodies that can affect their kids. The way we talk about our children’s bodies, strangers’ bodies, food, and diet can all have a serious impact.

And in a world where the National Eating Disorders Association reports that nearly 80% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being overweight, and where studies have found that over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, this is a serious issue that we need to address.

Numbers like these remind even me that I need to be careful about the messages I send my own kids. So with that in mind – and in case you, too, need the reminder – here are some common pitfalls that can inadvertently contribute to kids’ negative body feelings, and a few ways we can help reinforce body love in our children.

4 Things A Lot of Us Do, But Shouldn’t

1. Criticizing Yourself (Or Others) About Weight or Size

Like my folks, and probably like myself to a certain degree, many parents unconsciously put their own body image concerns on their children through what they think are benign and innocent comments about themselves and about other people.

And while most of us don’t think twice about saying “I’m not having dessert tonight – I’m still trying to lose those five pounds” in front of our kids, such comments have power.

According to a study by Harvard Medical School researchers, a mother’s concerns about her own body weight are a leading cause of body image problems in adolescents. Furthermore, the same study found that the more mothers were worried about their own weight, the more likely they were to pass on these attitudes to their children.

But it’s not just moms who shoulder the blame for body image issues. Fathers’ words and actions also have an effect.

A paper published in the journal Appetite found that fathers who were unhappy with their own bodies were more likely to monitor their sons’ food. These dads also contributed to a son’s poor body image and the likelihood of him developing an eating disorder.

Here’s the thing: Worrying about what your kids eat and talking about your body struggles might seem like responsible behavior, but in many cases, what the child takes away from your concern is bad feelings about food and weight.

And I think most people would agree that there’s nothing helpful about that.

2. Talking Negatively About Food

Have you ever found yourself saying something like “I can’t eat x – too many carbs” or “Your cake looks great, but it will go straight to my butt?” What about something like “I don’t remember the last time I had fast food. Why poison myself?”

A lot of us have.

But it’s just this kind of talk that sets up a shame paradigm around food and allows some foods to be seen as moral and healthy and others as just the opposite.

There’s so much embarrassment around food choices happening, and that can make people feel that they need to apologize for their tastes and preferences. Sure, a lot of families want to eat as healthfully as possible, but to do so at the expense of fostering a healthy view of food seems counterproductive!

Maybe we should all take a leaf from our kids’ preschool teachers who often remind toddlers not to yuck someone else’s yum.

3. Talking About Diets and Weight-Loss Programs

Since I teach health education, the subject of food comes up a lot in my classroom. And though I try to dissuade them from sharing personal information about their families publicly, I can’t tell you how many students I’ve taught who have brought up their parents’ diets.

These days, that means a lot of talk about juice fasts and cleanses. And every time these come up, I get particularly nervous.

That’s because when kids see their parents subsiding on liquid detox diets, this behavior and the idea that real food is a pollutant and something that needs to be flushed out of our systems becomes normalized.

As Harriet Ball, a biologist who worked on a report on diet detoxes for the organization Sense About Science, writes,

“Detox is marketed as the idea that modern living fills us with invisible nasties that our bodies can’t cope with unless we buy the latest jargon-filled remedy. Our new investigation into detox products has convinced us that there is little or no proof that these products work, except to part people from their cash and downplay all the amazing ways in which our bodies can look after themselves!”

Still, it isn’t only parent detoxers and juice fasters who concern me. There are still plenty of traditional dieters, caloric restricters, and Weight Watchers out there.

Combined with people like me who have various dietary restrictions (as my kids know, I don’t eat red meat and was a vegetarian for almost two decades), we get a whole lot of families where adults’ food choices can seem really limited.

The message that many kids get in this environment is not one of healthy eating, but rather one that says that the majority of foods are the enemy.

4. Commenting About Our Kids’ Weight Gain or Loss

If commenting about our own weight gain or loss can have such an impact on our kids, just imagine how commenting about our children’s weight affects them!

A lot of parents congratulate kids on losing weight or even find themselves saying things like “That outfit looks great on you – so slimming!” But all this does is remind kids that they are more loveable and valued when skinny.

If a child really does have a weight related health issue, addressing that with a trained health professional will be a lot more effective that reinforcing the inaccurate message that losing weight is a cure-all for everything from illness to social problems that kids already get every day in the rest of their lives.

And despite what a lot of people think, there is really no way to determine if someone is healthy or not by looking at their body. Yet parents often fall into the trap of assuming that a rounder or bigger kid is at risk of health related issues and so makes comments under this misperception.

4 Tips to Encourage Body Love Instead of Body Hate

Luckily, parents don’t only have the power to hurt our kids’ body image. We can also help them develop positive body feelings.

Here are a few pretty easy ways to start:

1. Compliment Children on What They Do, Not on What They Look Like

It’s not that you should never tell a kid how great they look. I know I’m always remarking on how cute my kids are, or how awesome a new outfit is on them. But I also try to frame body comments in a way that focuses more on the jobs my kids’ bodies do rather than on the way they appear.

So I will marvel to my daughter at how strong she is as she swings herself across monkey bars. Or I will tell my son how proud I am that he learned to swim (fourth time around in starfish level at the Y finally did the trick!).

And I hope in doing this I will help my kids see their bodies as what makes them capable of so many amazing things and not as not foes to be tamed.

2. Teach Kids That Weight Gain and Changes to Body Shape Are a Needed and Expected Part of Getting Older

For a lot of kids, the changes of puberty are rough. Bodies can morph from something familiar to something foreign seemingly overnight.

Often, that means that adolescents develop more visible body fat, and girls, in particular, may develop breasts and see their hips, butts, thighs, and bellies grow.

But this is not a problem. It is a just sign that someone is growing up.

Kids should be reminded that we need fat on our bodies. It’s crucial for brain development, for menstruation, and to keep us warm – just to name a few basics.

3. If You Must Talk About Healthy Eating and Exercise, Do So Without Mentioning Weight or Appearance

There are lots of ways to discuss health without focusing on looks.

We can talk about how protein fills us up more than sugar so we don’t get hungry as quickly after eating. We can talk about how exercise can be fun and help us stay strong and energized. We can talk about how to read a nutrition label to ensure you are getting enough nutrients.

But we don’t have to talk about how eating x and not y or exercising will keep us thin.  

Doing so may seem motivating, but ultimately it will just turn healthy habits into something we do out of fear and serve to further reinforce the constant negative messages we already get about weight.

4. Don’t Treat ‘Fat’ as a Bad Word

A few years ago, my then six-year-old daughter was talking about fraternal twins in her class. She was trying to describe them and said, “Callie and Addie look kind of the same, but Addie is…” Then she paused and whispered ”fatter,” as if the word fat was an awful thing to say out loud.

It isn’t. Fat is a descriptive word not a slur.

And while I probably would have described the kid in question as just plain bigger than her sister, I also needed my daughter to know that when we treat the word fat as taboo, we reinforce the idea that it’s somehow less than rather than simply one of many ways to be in the world.

It is too easy to act as if being fat is shameful, but simply allowing the word to exist without negative connotations is a good way to break this cycle.

Parents, You Can Do It!

As a kid, my parents’ comments about their weight made me acutely aware that I didn’t want to grow up and be in their position. And they contributed to a belief that the world was already instilling in me – namely, that being thin was preferable to any other alternative.

And this was all unintentional, of course!

Like most other parents, mine were simply trying to make their kids feel good about themselves.

But part of the problem with comments like the ones I heard is that while they’re seemingly positive or neutral, they often come at the expense of denigrating oneself or others. That’s true even if they are intended to be health promoting or complimentary.

Our kids are already getting the message that fat is a terrible thing from the rest of the world. Luckily, we have the power to counter these messages in very real way and without too much difficulty!

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Ellen Kate is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometime writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College (something she also did at Rutgers University). Ellen also runs About.com’s LGBT Teens site. More of Ellen’s writing can be foundhere. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef