From the time we are young, we receive messages about body sizes and shapes: what’s healthy and attractive, and what’s not. Whether it’s through media, family, or social conversation, we absorb beliefs about beauty standards. And while it’s impossible to protect your child from coming into contact with these topics, there are things you can do to help them cultivate self-confidence. Let’s talk body confident parenting!
It’s not news that U.S. society has long been thin-obsessed. The extreme societal pressure that many of us feel has an impact on our kids as well and can affect the way they feel about their bodies and their value. When kids feel less valuable because of the size of their body it impacts their confidence and overall emotional wellbeing.
According to NEDA, “By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.”
There are several steps you can take as a parent to change the messages within your own home and help your child cope with the messages they’re getting outside of your control.
Model healthy behaviors and language
How we talk about bodies impacts what our kids think about theirs (and other peoples’) both now and in the future. It may take a lot of time and effort to retrain your own way of considering and speaking about bodies, but by shifting the way you think and talk about your own body to be more accepting, you are modeling healthy body image for your children.
A helpful exercise for your entire family is to practice not commenting on bodies in general. Focus compliments on the qualities that draw you to someone. For example, “You are one of the funniest people I know” or “I love the time we spend together, you offer me such reassurance.” Even a simple, “You’re a beautiful person.” Teaching ourselves and our children not to speak about other people’s bodies can help us not judge or focus on someone’s outward appearance. In the end, you don’t choose your friends and loved ones because they’re physically attractive. You want to be around people because you feel good around them. None of that is based upon how they look or what size they are.
It will be normal for questions about different-looking bodies to come up. Try to focus on fact, not judgment in these moments. For example, a very tall person walks by and your child is awe-struck. You can talk about the differences in your bodies and how that might impact your perspective on the world! Or if your child sees a larger person and comments, “They’re fat!” A common response to this is, “That’s rude.” But perhaps another more constructive response could be, “Yes, they are bigger than you are. What does that mean to you?” Fat doesn’t have to be a negative term. It can be a descriptor just as are “tall,” “loud,” “funny,” etc.
Adjust your media sources
Expose your kids to books, art, and movies that celebrate a variety of body shapes, sizes, and abilities. Inclusive images and messages help children have a healthy, well-rounded view of their own bodies within a diverse world. When we step away from skinny-focused, white-centered, able-bodied media and recognize that all body types are valuable, kids see that too. Noticing and celebrating our differences can help people of all ages to strive for goals that are based on their personal values and not on their outward appearance.
Social media is well known as a source of unrealistic and pervasive messaging about ideal appearances. Filters and editing are hard for younger adolescents to fully understand. They generally believe what they see. It’s easy for these literally unreal images to quickly become a goal for young minds, and the link between use of social media and body dissatisfaction increases with the amount of time spent on various platforms. Any reduction or use of other more positive media or activity can help protect your child.
Refrain from critical remarks
Kids can internalize statements that make them feel self-conscious, for example, a comment about eating too many sweets or how they look in a dress. Negative messages can stick with kids for a long time and damage their self-esteem. Instead, pay attention to what they enjoy and keep it positive: “You run so fast, you must have very strong legs!”
Learning about exercise and what our bodies can do
When teaching your children about exercise, celebrating the physical feats they can accomplish is a great way to help your child feel empowered and energized. Helping them to explore team sports, participating in races, playing at the playground, or pushing themselves to reach a new goal they set for themselves are all ways you can encourage your child to enjoy their body and celebrate what it can do. Exercise is never a punishment for eating.
Kids love to hear about how we often struggle with the same things they do. Why? Because our own stories can help them feel less alone and know that what they feel is normal. You might share a story about how you struggled as a child to feel like you were pretty or fashionable enough. Maybe you have a physical difference that was challenging to grow to accept or love. Maybe you’re still working on recognizing your own self-worth outside of your physical appearance. Sharing your own insecurities to a certain extent can open up space for your child to share how they’re feeling with you.
Helping your child see that you’re a human too and that you’re there for them in the tougher moments, allows you to connect with them on a deeper level. It also paves the way for them to open up more to you and see you as a resource.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
- Ana Reisdorf. “How to Teach Your Child Body Positivity.” Mental Health America. Mental Health America, Inc. 2022. https://mhanational.org/blog/how-teach-your-child-body-positivity.
- D’Arcy Lyness, PhD. “Encouraging a Healthy Body Image.” KidsHealth. Nemours. June 2018. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/body-image.html.
- Erica Lamberg. “6 Lessons in Body Positivity to Teach Your Child by Age 5.” Parents. Dotdash Meredith. January 12, 2021. https://www.parents.com/kids/problems/body-issues/lessons-in-body-positivity-to-teach-your-child-by-age-5/.
- Ragan Chastain. “Raising Body Positive Kids in a Body Negative World.” Dances with Fat. September 24, 2016. https://danceswithfat.org/2016/09/24/raising-body-positive-kids-in-a-body-negative-world/.
- Sumner Brooks, MPH, RDN. “How to Raise a Kid Who Is Satisfied With Their Body, According to a Registered Dietitian.” Good Housekeeping. Hearst Digital Media. December 9, 2021. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/parenting/a38029229/positive-body-image-for-kids/.
- “Body image and eating disorders.” National Eating Disorder Organization. National Eating Disorder Organization. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-eating-disorders.