Nurturing Positive Body Image in Children

4 min read

In my role as a therapist, with a specialization in the treatment of eating disorders, I often find myself reassuring parents that their child’s eating disorder is not their fault. That being said, there is no doubt that what they say to their children and the behaviors they model profoundly influence their children’s relationship with their bodies and food.

Even well-intentioned comments, whether rooted in a parent’s personal experiences or guided by advice from medical professionals, may unknowingly contribute to negative self-perception, fostering body dissatisfaction and potentially triggering eating disorders.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Source: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Let’s explore some common “helpful” things parents tend to say, which, in reality, can be counterproductive.

“We are just cursed with big (insert body part, i.e., thighs). There is no escaping that.” This statement implies that certain body types are inherently undesirable, fostering a negative perception of one’s body.

“I hated my body too when I was your age.” While a parent sharing their teenage insecurities might intend to normalize such feelings, their child might interpret it as a cue for how they should feel about their developing body. It inadvertently passes on a legacy of negative self-image.

“You look great. Have you lost weight?” Praising weight loss sends a dangerous message that looking good equates to having a smaller body, triggering unhealthy behaviors such as restrictive eating and reinforcing harmful beauty standards.

“Are you sure you need to eat that? Maybe this diet will benefit you. You’re going to get fat if you eat that.” These comments trigger the loss of innocence, associating food with danger and promoting a good food/bad food mentality. Such statements disconnect individuals from their innate internal cues, instilling a sense of shame around food choices and the belief they can not trust themselves.

Perpetuating Weight Stigma

These comments not only trigger feelings of shame around food choices but also contribute to a broader narrative that associates body weight with one’s worth. By implying that avoiding certain foods or pursuing a diet is necessary to prevent becoming “fat,” individuals internalize the idea that fatness is inherently undesirable, which reinforces weight stigma—a set of negative attitudes and beliefs about individuals based on their weight.

In reality, perpetuating weight stigma contributes to a myriad of negative consequences, both physically and mentally. It can lead to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, and even worsen mental health outcomes. Moreover, weight stigma creates a culture where individuals are judged and discriminated against solely based on their body size.

Reversing the Damage: Nurturing Positive Body Image

While harmful messages can leave a lasting impact, there are ways to reverse the damage and foster positive body image:

  1. Media Literacy: Teach your child to be a critical viewer of media images, questioning unrealistic beauty ideals perpetuated by mainstream media.
  2. Positive Representation: Support media outlets that offer a more inclusive representation of bodies. Actively seek content that celebrates diversity.
  3. Mindful Language: Watch how you talk about your own body and others. Refrain from negative comments, fat-shaming, and self-deprecating remarks about appearance.
  4. Reject Body Stereotypes: Avoid conveying the message that certain activities or experiences are off-limits based on body appearance. Promote inclusivity and celebrate diverse body shapes and sizes.
  5. Normalize Food Choices: Encourage and model eating a variety of foods without judgment. Dispel the notion that certain foods are inherently “bad.”
  6. Emphasize Character Traits: Praise your child for qualities beyond appearance. Instill the belief that their value extends far beyond their body shape or size.
  7. Appreciate Body Functionality: Encourage an appreciation for what their bodies can do, shifting the focus from appearance to capabilities.
  8. Reimagining Movement: Promote movement that is enjoyable and physical activity for the pleasure it brings rather than viewing exercise as a means to burn calories or lose weight.

In Conclusion

Fostering a positive body image requires a conscious effort to untangle harmful messages and replace them with empowering narratives. By embracing inclusivity, promoting positive representation, and encouraging a healthy relationship with food and body, parents can play a pivotal role in nurturing their children’s self-esteem and well-being. This also involves addressing weight stigma, dismantling harmful beliefs, and fostering a culture that respects and celebrates the diversity of body shapes and sizes.

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