By Samantha Witthuhn, Groove Contributor
It’s become the new f-word.
Not only is it frowned upon, snigered at and an uncomfortably common respose when your kid answers, “what rhymes with cat,” but, more and more, we’re learning that this one word can have a detrimental impact on a child’s positive perception of themselves, persisting even into adulthood.
Gone are the days when health and wellness simply meant nagging your tots to eat their broccoli. Now, every single day, dads, moms, and caregivers across the nation balance back and forth on a hair-thin line between advocating for healthy lifestyles and embracing all body types. Needless to say, this head-scratching grey zone is tricky to navigate and leaves parents concerned about body positivity with a challenge on their hands. But just because the problem raises brows, doesn’t mean the conversation has to.
So, to kick off this wellness journey, let’s start with the facts.
According to a Common Sense Media research brief, Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, kids as young as five begin expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies. Five! Look a little older, and you’ll find that more than half of girls and about one-third of boys aged six to eight feel that their ideal body type is thinner than their own.
While the numbers are staggering, if you think about it, they aren’t really all that surprising. Just consider for a moment the cultural bombardment our children face from the second they wake up to the instant they’re finally able to fall asleep. Research suggests a child’s perspective on body imagery is the product of numerous cultural elements. Phones, Facebook, free TV time, friends, and even family dynamics serve as an incredibly eclectic range of factors that leave scars on our kids and eventually shape the way they view themselves.
Take an even deeper look at the cultural norms flowing through society’s veins, and you’ll learn that, according to the Common Sense Media research brief, 87% of the female characters (aged 10-17) that your kids are watching on TV are in medical terms, underweight. Flip the coin on the Barbie debate, and you’ll find that the proportions of many male action figures exceed the measurements of even the world’s leading bodybuilders. Yikes.
This societal vortex and media echo chamber subjects our kids to unrealistic body standards all the time, so who can blame us for being harsh judges of our thighs, arms and tummies. As social creatures, it’s ingrained in our brains to worry about our appearance everywhere we turn.
But, it doesn’t have to be.
As much as it may seem like there is no hope against this backdrop of alleged body norms, there is one secret weapon out there that, if used right, can help you win this begrudging battle of body imagery.
Are you ready for it?
Your family has a culture of its own too. One that exists outside, but parallel to, the community you live in. Your family unit functions as a space where you can determine the norms and ultimately shape the ways in which your kids talk, view and feel about themselves.
By taking the time to carefully cultivate your family’s culture, you can arm your kids with the tools they need to challenge the images they see, debunk the chatter they hear, and grow up happy and confident in themselves and their bodies.
So, where do parents busy with work, school, extracurriculars even begin!? Look no further than yourself.
1. Change YOUR norms
According to the Common Sense Media research brief, “parents are key to children’s healthy development, and body image is no exception.”
In a study by Davison, K. K. & Birch, L. L., girls who hear their dads express concern about a woman’s weight tend to judge their own bodies more than girls whose dads remain neutral. Likewise, girls whose moms share similar weight concerns also judge themselves to be less physically and cognitively able.
Furthermore, a Lowes, J. & Tiggemann, M. study uncovered that when 5- to 8-year-old children witness their moms negatively self-critique their figures, kids start to express similar dissatisfaction with their own bodies, mirroring their moms.
Meaning, if mom and dad are poo-pooing their bodies, kids start internalize this behavior and view themselves through a lens of judgement as well.
To avoid this sense of body dissatisfaction, it’s past time we ban fat-talk in the home.
Avoid complaining about your love handles pinching between that old pair of pants, and start finding ways to appreciate your body and the bodies of others in front of your kids. Talk about the characteristics and capabilities of different body parts, rather than their appearance. “What sports can your legs play?” “What does your belly do for your body?” “What part of your body do you love the most?”
If a child comments on body image, which let’s be honest is bound to happen, Dr. Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's of Alabama, in Birmingham, said in a recent Parents article, “The best reaction to have about body size is a neutral one.” Sure, I have big legs, just like I have two ears, two eyes and a nose, they’re all just normal parts of a body. And that’s that.
Whenever body talk comes up at home, rather than scoff or shut down the conversation, just remind your kids that all bodies are different, and that different isn’t bad, it’s just a part of what makes everyone beautiful and unique.
2. Create a new language
Alongside changing your own behaviors, is changing the way you talk with your kids about health. Sure we want our kids to live their lives at a healthy weight, but we don’t need to shame them into it. Expressing that we exercise and eat our broccoli because we want to keep our bodies healthy and capable of doing the things we love, rather than because of society’s “thin ideal,” will position wellness behaviors as actions we do to make us and our bodies feel energized and happy.
Avoid saying things like, “Exercise helps you stay fit, buff and skinny.” Instead say, “Exercise helps your body feel good and healthy!”
Avoid saying things like, “Cookies are bad for you.” Instead say, “Cookies are a sometimes food that we eat because we like!”
Avoid saying things like, “you need to work out to have a good body.” Instead say, “Does your body let you do the things you love? Then that’s all you need!”
3. Curate where your kids hang out
Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said in that same Parents article, " [At home] you can make it a rule that treating other people with respect is non-negotiable in your family. You should never, ever tease or make fun of your child because of his weight or the way he looks.”
Based on this rule, filter the tv shows, movies, music, offline and online spaces where your children hang out. Pick shows, movies and activities that avoid body stereotypes, gendered roles with overly sexualized girls or overly macho boys, and instead portray realistic characters who can serve as healthy role models for your kids.
If stereotypes do come up, which spoiler alert, they will, challenge them. Ask your kids whether or not larger tummies make you a good friend or inquire how a character might’ve felt after being made fun of for his/her/their body size.
We’re not telling you to keep your kids in a bubble, but merely suggesting you look for spaces that illustrate every type of person as worthwhile.
Finally, in tandem with curating your child’s media, take some time away from the TV and do activities at home that focus on mindfulness and cognitive growth. Use one of your kid’s favorite activities, like dance, to serve as a creative outlet for your family to tap into your bodies in a fun and positive way. Explore how you can shake your arms, stomp your legs and move your hips. Always take time to talk about how much your body can do, and how those talents make you feel.
But, we know, old habits die hard.
So if this all sounds like a lot, consider breaking up these language and behavior shifts into two-week challenges. Focus on your own behaviors first, change your vocabulary second, and shift where you and the fam hang out third. Put language reminders on the fridge or select a new body conversation topic at dinner each night.
Framing your kids’ body positive mindsets doesn’t have to be headache. Think about where you want your kids’ mind, body and health to be in their adulthood, and do your best to emulate that lifestyle for them. You got this. ---
Common Sense Institute Research Brief: Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image
Davison, K. K. & Birch, L. L. (2001). Weight status, parent reaction, and self-concept in five-year-old girls. Pediatrics, 107(1), 46–53
Lowes, J. & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. The British Psychological Society, 8, 135–147.
Pope, H. G., Olivardia, R., Gruber, A., & Borowiecki, J. (1999). Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action figures. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26, 65–72.
Talking to Kids about Body Image by Sunny Sea Gold from Parents Magazine
5 ways parents of preschoolers can raise of a body-positive kid by Sierra Filucci from The Washington Post