“My butt is big. But hers? It’s perfect. I keep telling her it’s perfect. I could never wear clothes like hers and pull it off. I mean, my thighs would never fit in those pants! She looks just like the models in the magazines. Could you tell her, Doc? Tell her she is not fat.”
As a practicing pediatrician, part of my job is to have honest discussions about the physical measures of weight. Building the life-skill of body confidence in a young child, however, is beyond any singular statement I could say at a checkup. Developing a positive body image is a dynamic journey that changes in intensity as children grow, and an important responsibility of every parent to appropriately guide.
When our children make negative comments about their body, it is understandably upsetting. We look for a culprit to blame for the negative talk. Advertisements, Photoshop, and fashion designers are an easy, yet short-sighted, target. Of course we need to protect our children from repeated exposures of fantastical images of “perfect” men and women. And in each of our homes, we should limit the availability of these physically unattainable ideals by controlling media messages on print and screen.
However, our responsibility to nurture our child’s sense of a healthy body image is bigger than just limiting the bad.
The truth is that many children who display concerns about their self-image are mirroring what they have seen in their parents. They have seen mom wince at the number on the scale, heard dad talk about his big belly in distain, or listened to grandma chat about the latest diet craze. We, as parents, need to understand that our actions create the foundational building blocks of our children’s body confidence. If we are not living our everyday lives with the positive self-talk we desire for our children, how can we expect them to do the same?
How we accept our bodies is how our children will learn to accept their own. We need to be the image of body confidence we want to see in our children, and we must choose to continually live this belief for their own health. Losing weight, or exercising more, are some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions. But how can you accomplish your goals without harming your child’s body image?
Understand the significance of our influence. In repeated scientific studies, it is clear that a child’s same sex parent is the biggest role model for healthy weight. Know that your words carry tremendous value, but your actions also teach. Don’t weigh yourself in front of your children. Carry yourself confidently in your clothes. Talk about the things you love about yourself, rather than admonishing your flaws. Smile when you look at yourself in mirrors. Don’t openly discuss your diet or weight loss goals. Don’t buy foods that you shouldn’t eat. Exercise regularly. And if nothing else, lean into a rule we all know; if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Be bold. Every person, everyone, has been/is interested in their own appearance. And that’s OK! It’s normal to think about how we are present ourselves to the world, and to desire positive change. How we choose to react to these desires, however, is the difference between confidence and catastrophe. Don’t be afraid to have discussions with your sons and daughters about how they perceive themselves. Praise them for positive choices and decisions. Define your child’s beauty with character words such as courage, intelligence, or kindness; rather than external characteristics. Describe those traits in others. Discuss with your children that the words “fat” or “skinny” are not kind, whether talking about someone else or referring to yourself.
Ask a ton of questions. If your child makes a concerning comment regarding his food choices or body image, ask him why he made the comment. How did he hear about a “diet”? How did he feel when a friend made that remark? What does he really think about what he heard, is that true? What does “chubby” mean? What changes does he think he needs to make? Does he want to know what you think? Answers to more detailed questions will be more revealing to your child’s true intent, rather than our own interpretation of an off-hand comment.
Get to know your child’s friends, offline and online. Another large influencer to your child’s perception of beauty is her own friend network. This includes friends in real life, and people she interacts with online. Make an effort to know the people your child is hanging out with, and watch to see if they also live healthy habits. In addition, know where your child is hanging out online, and what she is searching. Encourage relationships with positive influencers and health-helpers.
Don’t lie. Childhood obesity and abnormal eating behaviors (too much or too little) are real medical problems. Do not justify truly unhealthy weights as “perfect” for your child. This could amplify a child’s false sense of wellness, making recovery even more difficult. If you believe that your child is underweight or overweight, turn to professionals for help. Make an appointment with your child’s doctor to discuss these issues, with or without your child present, to get a productive game plan.
We all want our girls and boys to be happy when they look in the mirror and be comfortable in their own skin. If you need more help for discussion topics and a place good information, visit fellow Parent Toolkit expert, Dr. Michele Borba’s blog.
Dr. Natasha Burgert is a Parent Toolkit expert and a board certified pediatrician with a thriving general pediatric practice. On her blog, kckidsdoc.com, she shares practical advice from her expertise in pediatrics blended with her experience as a mom of two children.