Simple Ways Parents Can Help Children Build a Positive Body Image

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Melissa Shaw

A child’s body image continues to be a major worry for parents, and numbers from reinforce their concern:

* 42% of first through third grade girls want to be thinner

* 81% of 10 year-olds are afraid of being considered fat

* 25% of teenage boys report being teased for their weight

* 53% of teenage girls already are, or think they should be, on a diet

Starting in her teens, Marci Warhaft struggled with body image and self-esteem issues, dangerous diets, and extreme exercise, which continued for years. Today she is a mother, author, body image expert, and contributor to The Huffington Post, who says parents can play a huge role in helping their children build strong, healthy self-esteem and tune out or debunk negative and harmful messages.

How can parents share a body positive image and a healthy mindset with their kids?

Really watch how they hear you talk about yourself. Let your kids overhear you say something nice about yourself, something like, “I love my arms because I get to hug you, and I love my legs because I get to dance. I love my belly because that’s where you were for 9 months” or “...because you like to lay your head there” — body-positive things. When they hear you say good things about your body, they know it’s OK to feel good things about their body.

Take away any kind of glamour, fashion, or fitness magazine. Fill the house with pictures of family and friends. Because at least until they’re out there, in the real world, the pictures they’re going to be seeing are pictures of real bodies. When they do get inundated with these fake, manipulated Photoshop images, that will seem weird to them because they’ve seen pictures of people who are real and flawed and normal.

Have conversations with your kids about who inspires them, people you know. Who do you look up to? Why do you look up to them? Then ask: Would you feel any different if they were taller, shorter, rounder? It’s going back to “and that’s why we love you, it’s about who you are, not how you look.”

I think it’s really important to get your kids involved in some sort of extracurricular activity. If they have something else that they’re doing that makes them feel good about themselves, whether it’s a sport, art, music, or whatever, it’s something that they’re doing they can be proud of. And it’s somewhere where they’re with like-minded people, maybe a nice coach or instructor, who’s also validating them for their skill. That is really important because our society is so big on glorifying and glamorizing based on how we look. To have your kids feel good about something they do is really, really powerful.

What can parents do when they hear something from a child that is very irrational, such as “I need to lose weight” or “My belly is fat,” when they are in a normal weight range?

Our gut reaction is to say, “That’s crazy, you’re not fat!” The problem with that — and I get it, I’m a parent, too — is that we’re making it like it’s the worst thing in the world, and we don’t want that. The better thing is to say, “What? That’s so weird. That doesn’t make any sense,” so there’s no panic. That’s much more reassuring. Whatever their body is doing right now, it’s preparing itself. Their body is in transition, this is not where it’s going to stay. What they have to do is work with it, not fight it.

What do you do when your children, especially those starting or in the middle of puberty, start to compare their bodies to those of peers?

My best friend is 6 feet tall, I’m 5’5”. No matter what I do, I will never be 6 feet tall. There’s no better, there’s no worse. We have to concentrate on making our bodies the best they can be — and that doesn’t mean the most muscular or skinniest. It means that it’s working the best. Be the best you you can be. And give yourself that chance, because you have no idea how amazing that could be. Be yourself, give it some time. This is a transitional time, and the last thing they want to do is mess with it. Work with it, be proud of it. Losing weight right now [during puberty] is losing strength and energy. That’s going to keep them from their goal, not get them there.

What should parents do if they’re trying to share and instill body positive messages, but, say, a family member unwittingly keeps saying negative things, like, “She has such a pretty face, if she’d only lose some weight”?

We have to be careful of other people, like friends or a grandmother, who come over and say, “Should she be having _____?” It has to be very clear to anyone who’s in contact with your kids: You don’t talk that way. It doesn’t matter who it is, it’s really important to stand up to them in front of your kids. Even if you don’t want to make a scene, acknowledge it, so your kid knows it was so important, and you so believe what you’re saying that you’re saying it right away. Just like if you don’t want someone swearing around your child, I don’t want someone talking about their diet or how much weight they lost around my kid. And you have every right to say that.

I can see adults talking about eating or comments about their own body being a massive influence parents don’t realize.

They don’t. Go to a restaurant or a coffee shop, the conversations! People say, “I shouldn’t have this cake, but…” or “I can have it because I went to the gym.” We don’t have to repent from or earn food. You hear it constantly.

Society tends to focus on women when it comes to body image, but it’s equally serious for boys and men, correct?

Yes, boys get it from two sides: They either think that they’re too big or too small. They’re stuck in the middle, and that’s a really tough place. Boys feel just as deeply as girls do, they just don’t have the vocabulary to express it. We don’t let them talk about it. What happens oftentimes with boys and body image, is they feel crappy about how they look, but it doesn’t come out the way we think. It will come out in dangerous behavior: alcohol, drugs, acting poorly in school. It stems from negative body image, but it’s easy to miss because it’s not showing in the same way.

At school presentations, you speak to children as young as first grade via your Fit Vs. Fiction body image workshops. What your goal?

I want to help raise critical thinkers. I bumped into a mother once, her daughter was at one of my workshops. They were in a store and her daughter came over with a magazine and said, “This is Photoshopped. That is Photoshopped.” She was able to look at a magazine in a very different way. So instead of a message coming at our kids that makes them question themselves, I want them to hear that message and question the message. We have to be really proactive with positive messages and be careful with what we say.

What if your child is overweight? How can a parent help?

That’s a tricky situation because I’ll hear a lot of parents say, “I want to help them, but I don’t want them to feel subconscious.” The thing is, kids are smart. You’re not going to say to a kid, “No, you’re perfect” and they’ll believe it, when they know they could feel better.

Make it a positive thing: “You know what? I’ve been feeling tired lately and I’d like to have more energy. Why don’t we start going for walks after dinner or to the park instead of sitting and watching TV? What if we look up new recipes or go shopping and cook together once a week?” You’re making it a positive thing. “We” — it’s a whole family thing, it’s a fun thing. Nothing about size, nothing about weight, it’s about how we’ll feel. Let’s feel better. The other thing I see all the time: Living a healthy lifestyle should not be something you do because you hate your body. It should be something you do because you love it. It’s something you want to do, not a punishment. You can’t lose weight to like yourself, you have to like yourself to lose weight.

I used to take my kids to the park and do obstacles courses with them. It was just fun. Or have a dance party with your kids. Watching TV, during a commercial, challenge them to do a silly dance until the show comes back on. It’s just fun. There are so many creative little things you can do to get physical activity and have your children feeling good in their bodies. It’s just getting them loving their bodies and feeling good about them. It’s not a mirror and it’s not a size. It’s all about keeping it positive. It’s not how your body looks, it’s how it works.