By Austin Widmer
If your healthy 10-year-old came to you with a frown, tugged on her skin, and declared, "I need to go on a diet. I'm getting fat," how would you respond?
Many parents react with assurances that their child "looks fine," and then blame the media, focusing on the excessive depictions of waif-like models and muscular men, the overuse of Photoshop, and the endless advertisements for "quick fix" weight loss products. "It's our culture," they say. "The media is making my child feel bad about her body." And it is; in part. But the claim that the responsibility for children's poor body image and obsession with thinness and muscularity is the fault of the media tells only half the story.
A recent study in the Journal of Eating Disorders challenged the popular tendency to scapegoat the media by surveying individuals diagnosed with eating disorders and those from the general public about what factors influenced the development of an eating disorder. What they found was that the adults who referenced the media were far more to blame than the media itself. Parents, coaches, and other valued adults who reinforced Photoshopped images as ideal, emaciated and muscle-bound actors as beautiful, and who persistently voiced negative comparisons between their own bodies and these "perfect bodies" were cited by those diagnosed with eating disorders as far more influential than the images themselves.
Children don't know what "eating disorders" are; they just know that the important people in their lives hold certain values about how "beautiful" is supposed to look. Hence, the best way to prevent eating disordered behaviors is to model healthy attitudes and decisions about weight, beauty, exercise, and eating.
If your child asks about dieting, there is no reason to be alarmed. We are all on diets, as a diet is simply a plan for what and how you eat. What is important is exploring the goals of the diet. If your child is healthy, but wants to lose weight, emphasize that they are growing and that it is more important to develop healthy tissue, such a muscle and bone, than it is to lose weight. Indulge their convictions about "diet" by reframing the conversation such that you are discussing a lifestyle change, focused on enjoying more healthy choices rather than fewer calories. No child will be harmed by indulging in more fruits and vegetables! Stock your house with healthy options and limit access to soda and other empty calories. Reinforce good nutritional choices and make sure you model healthy decisions as well. It is one thing to tell your child to snack on carrots and hummus instead of chips, but it is quite another to show them that you too are making this choice.
While modeling the right way to eat, parents can also help their children by modeling healthy exercise habits -- lead by example. There's no need for anything fancy: Take the stairs instead of the elevator and make a game out of counting your steps, go for walks, or ride bikes around the neighborhood. Mild to moderate exercise every day should be the goal you strive to teach.
While modeling healthy eating and exercise habits is fairly obvious, what is less obvious, but equally important, is limiting your tendency to judge your self or others for weight or body shape.
Children internalize all comments, and as research has shown, these become automatic filters for judging the value of individuals. It is important for parents to voice approval for acts of good character, for achievement of positive goals, and for accomplishments unrelated to appearance.
And this is true both with regard to children and the self. Consider your own weight-related habits: Do you step on a scale every day? Do you talk about how you can't have something because you need to watch your weight? Do you count carbs or calories or grams of fat in front of your child? Do you complain about "having to go the gym" each day? Consider skipping the scale, choosing energetic activities that you enjoy, and talking less about weight and grams of various nutrients. You may not realize you are sending messages about negative body image, but children are reading these messages loud and clear.
If you are having difficulty undoing your own history of weight-obsession or struggle with maintaining a healthy weight, and your child appears to be "inheriting" your own negative body image messages, then you might consider enrolling your child in a body-positive program such as EmBody Love (embodylovemovement.org), a national organization dedicated to empowering girls and women to celebrate their inner beauty over outer appearance, or Girls on the Run (girlsontherun.org), a 10-week program offered to girls in third through eighth grades, to promote body positivity and healthy lifestyles. Programs such as these provide parents with encouragement, education, and support in promoting regular discussions and practices for healthy living.
The media may set the standard, but in the end, your child will learn about body image through you. Making the home environment a place where healthy choices are encouraged and the "D-word" is redefined as a choice to be healthy rather than a way to reduce weight, offers the best chance to curb body image disturbances and eating disorders before they become problematic.
Austin Widmer is a graduate student clinician in the Mental Health Counseling program at Becker College. He provides counseling services to adults, children, and families through the Counselor Training Clinic (CTC) at Becker College in Leicester. Visit mhcclinic.becker.edu for more information about available, low-cost, counseling services at the CTC.