January 31, 2022
In a society that worships thinness and treats it as the be-all and end-all of human existence, it’s easy to experience body dissatisfaction. While we may think of body image and body dissatisfaction as a very personal thing, did you know that as a parent, your body image strongly influences your child’s body image?
What children see or hear about weight, body shape, and dieting can influence how they feel about their own body, regardless of whether these messages are directed at them. While these messages can come from the media, friends, family, or other influential adults like educators and sports coaches, what children hear in their own home is often more important when it comes to protecting or harming body image. Parents have a huge influence over how their child perceives their body, as well as their relationship with food. Think back to the first time you learned that you needed to be “careful” and monitor your body, and the role that your parents played in teaching you this. Maybe it was your mom refusing to buy cookies, or your dad encouraging you to exercise to avoid getting “too big”. Maybe it wasn’t even directed at you, but instead it was your parents commenting on strangers’ bodies while walking down the street that made you recognize that you had to monitor your own body to avoid the same scrutiny.
Whether intentional or not, the more parents encourage their child to worry about their body, the more likely they are to experience body dissatisfaction and engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours. In contrast, encouraging children to feel positive about their bodies also encourages them to be healthy and confident. Research shows that body-positive kids who assume they are healthy, regardless of what others think about their body, are more likely to have a positive relationship with food and their body, engage in positive health behaviours, and be healthier overall. They are also less likely to engage in risky dieting behaviours like restricting or purging, which can ultimately lead to eating disorders.
Parents, especially mothers, can influence the development of their children’s body image directly, through verbal messages, or indirectly, through modelling behaviours toward their own bodies. By modelling behaviours that express body dissatisfaction, parents can indirectly transmit body ideals or body dissatisfaction to their children. While it might be hard to believe that a young child could be unhappy with their appearance, studies have shown that up to 70% of children between the ages of 3-6 years experience body dissatisfaction. What’s more, research shows that children’s body dissatisfaction is related to their mothers’, but not their fathers’, body dissatisfaction, and kids (especially girls) who believe that their mothers want to be thinner also believe that they should be thinner.
Things like critiquing your own and others’ bodies, attributing value to thinness, and dieting can leave a strong impression on your child. Kids are highly perceptive, and these early experiences plant the seeds for body dissatisfaction that can last a lifetime, leading to struggles with low self-esteem, dieting, and eating disorders over time.
Although you can’t fully shield your child from the harmful messages of society, there are things you can do as a parent to improve their resilience to them. Modelling body positivity goes a long way in raising a body-confident child. Even if you don’t currently feel confident about your own body, there are still things you can do to help build up your child’s body image (and hopefully yours along the way).
It’s no secret that children learn by watching and listening. Think about how many times your child has copied something you’ve said or done. I’m always amazed at what my kids pick up on and parrot back to me, so now I have to pay attention to what I say in front of them. The same goes for what we say about our bodies. Criticizing our own bodies can teach kids to think and say similar things about themselves and others.
The first step to making positive comments about your body is to replace the negative with the positive. Instead of focusing on what you don’t like about your body, try focusing on things you do like about yourself or on what specific body parts allow you to do. For example: my brain allows me to be creative, I love that I am a loyal friend, or my legs are strong and allow me to run and jump.
Our body is incredible and shows up for us everyday. It allows us to move, turn food into energy, heal from injury, and much more. Focusing on appearance teaches children that the value of our body lies in the way it looks rather than what it can do for us, when in reality, our body should be celebrated for everything it allows us to accomplish.
Instead of focusing on how your body looks, focus on what it does for you. This can be as simple as replacing “I hate my ___” with “my ___ allows me to ___” statements. For example, maybe you hate your arms, but those same arms allow you to carry things, hug your loved ones, build cool towers with blocks, and the list goes on.
As a parent, you play an important role in shaping your children’s eating habits and relationship with food. Openly dieting teaches children that the body should be changed through the foods we eat. Restricting certain foods can also teach children that some foods are “good” while others are “bad”, which sets the tone for a negative relationship with food. Moralizing food in this way may lead your child to wonder if they’re “bad” for eating and liking “bad” food. Kids are also really good at picking up on whether you’re eating the foods they like, so if you’re constantly avoiding certain foods, they may start to feel shame if they like those foods.
Enjoying a variety of foods with your kids, including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and fun foods like sweets and desserts, helps to model a positive relationship with food and your body. It also helps you to bond with your kids over cooking and enjoying food. Remember that while food provides us with energy, we eat for a wide variety of reasons. It’s important to get pleasure and satisfaction from your food.
If this one is a tough one for you, and you feel a lot of guilt or shame when you eat certain foods, I highly encourage you to check out The Nourished Mama. In this program we work through all those feelings surrounding food in order to get you eating in a way that feels nourishing and sustainable.
Like dieting, focusing on exercise for weight loss can teach children to further internalize the thin ideal and use exercise as a means to change the body or punish oneself for eating. Kids are intuitive movers. I swear my four year old’s favourite game is just running around our house. Why? Because it’s fun! Here I think we can learn from our kids. Movement is supposed to be enjoyed. Try focusing on movements that feel good to you physically and that you genuinely like doing, like stretching, dancing, or walking. This doesn’t mean you can’t do strenuous exercises if you want to and enjoy those, everyone will have different levels of enjoyment for different activities. It does however mean that you don’t need to force yourself to do certain exercises because you feel like you have to. Engaging in movement that’s fun with your kids, or in front of your kids, can help them develop a positive association with movement and activity.
Talking about diet and exercise for weight control around your children reinforces weight stigma and body ideals. Avoid talking to friends and family about this as children can overhear these conversations and internalize these messages. Instead, focus on the benefits of eating well and moving your body that have nothing to do with changing your weight. For example, “fruits and vegetables increase energy” or “movement helps build strong muscles and bones”.
If you want to raise a body positive child, it’s time to make friends with your body once and for all. After all, if you don’t love the body that you’re in now, how can you encourage your kids to love their own? If you really want to walk the walk, you need to become a The Nourished Mama. The Nourished Mama is an online program where we walk you through the steps to becoming an Intuitive Eater. You can check out the LIVE version of The Nourished Mama here or if you want to work through it on your own, check out the self-study version.
Written by Alexandra Rooney, 4th Year Dietetics Student
Edited by Jennifer Neale, MSc. RD
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