Children and teenagers can be incredibly vulnerable when it comes to developing negative body image. Growing up in a media-saturated world can make it hard for them to accept their bodies when they’re different from the ones they see on TV, social media, or in magazines. Even adults have difficulty remembering that the bodies portrayed are often altered and completely unrealistic for the average person; this can be even harder for kids to comprehend. Rather than focusing on this more technical argument that everyone is flawed, we can instead put emphasis on how our differences make us beautiful and that our greater value is in our character. Here are some ways you can help your child or teen internalize this:
First, look in the mirror
The single best way to raise body-positive kids is to lead by example. Find what you love about yourself and embody it. Strive to be a positive role model for your children. You are the best educator they have and they look to you for guidance and examples of how to behave in this world (whether you want them to or not). Model the behaviour you want to see, including refraining from talking negatively about your body in front of your kids.
Be mindful of implementing unnecessary food restrictions
If you want your kids to be body positive, you need to shatter the false dichotomy between “good” and “bad” foods. There are certainly foods that are more nutritious for you than others but there are no foods that are inherently “good” or “bad.” Ensure that you’re helping your kids understand healthy nutrition by talking about moderation and balance rather than good and bad.
Don’t villainize food
Do not make food “the enemy.” Use cooking together as a family bonding opportunity. Make it fun and create memories together in the kitchen. Portray food in a positive light and don’t project your own negative associations with various foods onto your kids.
Ditch the math
Your body needs food to survive. Period. It does not “deserve” more or less of it depending on how much movement you do. If you find yourself doing this math in your head about your own body be sure to keep it to yourself and avoid verbalizing it to your kids. Statements like “I was bad and had two pieces of chocolate cake! I need to make up for it at the gym tonight,” tells kids that they have to “earn” their food. This creates a negative power imbalance and frames food as some sort of a reward when it’s not.
Explore different kinds of hunger
Help your kids understand how hunger can be influenced by various factors. There is a big difference between emotional hunger, boredom, and physiological hunger. If your child constantly wants cookies when they’ve had a bad day, this is likely emotional hunger. While having cookies to make you feel better once in a while is totally fine—and you should tell them that—maybe one day you suggest another activity they enjoy, like doing arts and crafts or setting up a playdate. The most important thing is to teach them to listen to their bodies and consider what’s it’s saying and why.
How do you react in front of your kids when you interact with someone who appears a little disheveled, unclean, or a larger body size than average. Do you talk negatively about them? Do you use them as an example for why your kids should always look “presentable,” “shower,” or “watch what you eat”? Does your tone of voice become judgmental? What does your body language say? Fostering this awareness in yourself can help you understand the messages your kids are getting about how physical bodies are judged.
Leave gender out of it
Women and girls also tend to get considerable more attention in the area of self-image than men and boys. This disproportionate amount of attention means that body image and self-love issues such as height are not being addressed as they should in our sons. While most would agree that there is huge pressure on females to be “skinny,” what is less known is that similar amounts of pressure exist on males to have clear skin and to be tall and muscular. Promoting body positivity across all genders is key to a healthy body image.
Disrupt the association between body size and worth
When we think about our loved ones, we think about how caring and kind they are, how they always make us laugh, or their admirable sense of honesty. We love and appreciate people for who they are on the inside—not how they look on the outside. Make this connection clear to your kids: someone’s body size is just that and nothing more. It is just one part of them, and not nearly the most important! It says nothing about who they are as a person. Ask your children to name their favorite things about their best friends, and then themselves. Show them that what others love and appreciate them for is not about their physical appearance. Model what you want to see by habitually and genuinely complimenting your kids on their inner qualities rather than their outer ones.
Use positive self-talk
When you begin to sense that your children are becoming self-conscious about their bodies, ask them to remind themselves about their favorite characteristics. Maybe they like how funny they are, how well they can cook, or how good they are at math. Increasing their self-confidence is how children learn to love and accept themselves just as they are. When they feel embarrassed about their bodies, building up their self-confidence will help to build the solid foundation of self-esteem they need to guide them successfully through life.
Interrupt negative behaviour patterns
Help your kids spend more time making connections with their friends, family, and with activities that they love. Limit screen time and explain that what we see online is not real life. Emphasize that we should not compare ourselves to others. Encourage your children to spend more time doing creative activities rather than watching YouTube videos for hours on end or scrolling Instagram. Lastly, teach and practice gratitude expression with them. An example would be: “I am thankful that my body is healthy, and lets me play with my friends!” This is especially important to lean on when they express dissatisfaction with their bodies.
Raising children who love and accept themselves and their bodies starts with modelling healthy behavior at home. Cultivate acceptance of your own appearance (if you’re not already) and seize learning opportunities with your children to reinforce the importance of character over appearance. Remind your kids that what they see in the media is often not real-life, and that they can’t make fair comparisons. Even if you feel you’re a work in progress (don’t we all!) you can still choose which thoughts you verbalize and which ones you choose to let dissipate.