Modeling Healthy Body Image for Our Children
Standing in the mirror, Julie’s eyes dart between various parts of her body. She pinches at the skin on her stomach and sighs, comparing her body to a younger version from the past. Automatic criticisms race through her mind: I’ve really let myself go, clothes never look good on me, I wish I looked like someone else, I’m not good enough.
Julie doesn’t notice that these negative thoughts have started, so she doesn’t attempt to challenge them or reframe her negative self-talk into positive affirmations or even neutral, reality-based cognitions. She also doesn’t notice that when she voices a negative thought out loud, “I need to lose weight,” her daughter is standing at the bathroom door, absorbing every prodding gesture and every comment.
What Messages about Bodies are We Subconsciously Sending to Our Kids?
We are often aware of how messages in the media and from their peers might impact our children; nevertheless, sometimes we forget the messages we ourselves send. This is especially true when our negative self-talk around body image is so automatic or ingrained in our routine that we don’t always realize when we are even engaging in it.
Children, however, will learn from the behavior we model. If we express dissatisfaction with our bodies or are critical of the way we look, it is likely that our children will learn to evaluate themselves through the same critical lens. Eventually, children may imitate our behaviors and internalize negative self-talk language themselves. Just as children listen, watch, and repeat what we do and say in other cases, children are the same way with body image even if the negative comments aren’t directed at them.
Messages Can be Harmful
Whether we are aware of it or not, some of the messages we may be sending to our kids can be harmful and not align with messages we consciously try to send. For example, our constant criticism and comparison of our bodies can communicate that appearance is most important, and that the value of bodies revolves around what they look like. Our kids may also internalize the ideas that bodies are something to be ashamed of – or that everyone should want to change their bodies, especially if their parents are modeling unhealthy or extreme dieting and exercise routines.
Along with these messages, kids may also come to learn that bodies that don’t look a certain way are “bad” bodies or that being “fat” is morally wrong. In addition, children may also start to view physical activity as only for weight loss and even that avoiding or restricting food is “good.” Whether we realize it or not, negative body talk within the family environment can impact children well into adulthood, leading to less intuitive eating or disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and other maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In addition, positive body image or body acceptance is linked to higher self-esteem whereas negative body image is associated with shame, lower self-esteem, and other mental health conditions.
Body Positivity VS Body Neutrality
While there are a plethora of body positivity movements underway in current society, sometimes it can be difficult to jump from “I hate my body” to “I love my body.” Body neutrality may be a more accessible middle ground for those struggling with body images issues, no matter the age.
Body neutrality might look like a reality-based cognition related to what your body does for you. It is common for us to also focus on bodies as a set of parts to be criticized, which is how we objectify bodies rather than celebrate bodies. We can counter these messages by showing appreciation for what our bodies allow us to do. For example, saying, “My legs allow me to hike in nature and dance to my favorite song” or “my mouth allows me to express my ideas and taste my favorite foods.” When we model a language of appreciation for our bodies or even stating facts about our bodies’ functionality, we shift body talk to reflect a healthier, more loving relationship with our bodies. Our bodies heal us when we are sick or when we fall and scrape our knees. Our bodies allow us to listen to our favorite songs, watch a sunset, and smell candles and flowers. A positive affirmation related to our bodies might be to validate that, “I take care of my body, and my body takes care of me.”
How to Model Healthy Body Image for Children and Yourself
Other ways to help model healthy body image might be to focus on positive behaviors and values rather than focus on bodies at all. Try saying something like, “I love the way you shared your toy with your sibling,” “you have been so helpful around the house,” or “you are so dedicated and passionate about your sport.” It may seem harmless to compliment your child’s physical appearance; however, sometimes this can create an expectation around what a “good body” looks like. For example, commenting on a person losing weight with positive feedback may send the message that weighing less is better.
Instead, teach children to value and respect the diversity of bodies in society. Express that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes – and that all bodies are good bodies. Not only will this help you to reframe negative body talk yourself, but it will also model for your children how to have a healthy, loving relationship with their bodies, and overall, themselves. In addition, feeling ashamed of our bodies often results in treating our bodies poorly whereas appreciating our bodies motivates us to treat our bodies well and take care of ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.