Recently, weight watchers has gotten into some hot water for promoting a dieting app designed for children. In my opinion that flack is well deserved. Research shows that children as young at 5 (or in some studies as young as 3) demonstrate poor body image and low self-esteem. Navigating a “diet culture” is hard enough as an adult, let alone as a child without the tools to combat it, and our society is stewing in it! It rears its head in the television shows we watch, the advertisements we consume, the wellness blogs we read, the Instagram stars we follow. At times it feels like it’s in the air we breathe.
So how then do we protect our children from these deeply damaging messages about food, weight, and appearance when they are so pervasive? I wrestle with this question as a parent and I hear from patients in my therapy practice.
The good news is that the behaviors we model and the way we talk (or don’t talk) about weight, bodies, and appearance can go a long way in fostering healthy body image, promoting body love, and protecting our children from the harmfulness of diet culture. There are a number of ways to reinforce body positivity or even body neutrality in our children. Below are some ideas.
10 Ways to Raise Body Positive Kids in a Body Negative World
1. Maintain a “Fat Talk” Free House:
Fat Talk refers to the ways in which people engage in conversations around body, weight, and diets. You can find fat talk in the “bonding” over diets amongst co-workers, the disparaging comments we make about our bodies to our partners, the fawning over a friend’s weight loss. It is so ubiquitous in our culture that many people assume it is harmless. However, research suggests that “fat talk” is linked to body shame, poor body image, and eating disorders. “Fat talk” is banned in my house. I make it a point to model different ways of shutting down fat talk in front of my kids. Sometimes I’m direct, sometimes I change the subject, and sometimes I find gentler ways to point out the problematic language being used. Whatever tactic I use, my goal is to show my kids that they do not have to participate.
2. All Foods Fit:
In my house, there are no bad foods. In fact, I don’t even classify foods as healthy or unhealthy. Instead, I try to provide my kids with an array of options of foods to enjoy. There is no mandate that they clean their plate and eat all of what is given to them, but I encourage them to try new things and stay connected to their intuitive sense of hunger, fullness, and the joy they derive from eating. In practice, this means sometimes my kids don’t eat any vegetables at a meal and sometimes they plow through tons of them. It means my kids are allowed snacks when they are hungry. For some advice on helping kids maintain a healthy and intuitive relationship with food, I’d recommend Ellyn Satter’s books.
3. Dessert is a Daily Option:
I allow my kids access to sweeter foods every day. Sugar is not demonized in my house. Restricting food or categories of food can contribute to binging behaviors and a sense of shame about food choices. If you’ve ever heard someone say they are being “bad” for eating a sweet, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. This doesn’t mean I let me kids raid a candy store on a daily basis, but it does mean they may ask me for a cookie or a marshmallow (their current preferred sweets) most nights and they are allowed to have them.
4. Fat is Not a Bad Word:
We use the word “fat” as the value-neutral descriptive word it is intended to be. It’s no different in my house then tall, or short, or orange or blue. It is not demonized or something to be whispered or shamed about.
5. Celebrate All Bodies:
I do my best to expose my kids to books, apps, and TV shows that reflect a diversity of body types. This can be challenging given the general dearth of media that depict larger-bodied main characters, however, there are some good options available.
6. Limit Compliments Based on Appearance and Teach Kids how to Handle Them:
My husband and I compliment and praise our kids a lot. However, we make it a point to limit the appraisals of their physical appearance. While it’s relatively easy to do this at home, it’s a bit harder to navigate in the outside world where other people make appearance-based compliments with the kindest of intentions. My strategy when this happens is to remind my kids about the things about them that are awesome that have nothing to do with their appearance or that remind them that their appearance is not what is most important. For example, if someone compliments my daughter’s hair I may say to her later “It was so nice that that lady said your hair was beautiful, but even if your hair was different you would still be amazing.”
7. Don’t forget the Boys:
Boys and men develop eating disorders, experience body dysmorphia, and feel body shame too. If you are making an effort to work on body positivity and an anti-diet mentality with your daughters, work on this with your sons too. As an aside, transgender folks experience some of the highest rates of eating disorders so if you have a trans child, addressing these issues is especially important.
8. Teach Media Literacy:
My kids are still quite young, so we are just starting to gently touch on media literacy with our oldest child. In short, media literacy is about educating our children and ourselves about the harmful impact of the media’s promotion of unrealistic beauty standards. There are lots of ways to teach media literacy to kids of all ages. Commonsense Media has some great recommendations grouped by age.
9. Don’t Aim for Perfection:
You are not going to get this right 100% of the time and that is OK. It’s near impossible in a society that is so image-obsessed to fully extricate yourself from diet culture. If you make a mistake, note it, learn from it, make amends or repair if needed, and move on.
10. Practice What You Preach:
How can we expect our kids to develop a healthy relationship with their bodies if they see us afraid to put on a bathing suit in the summer? How can we expect our children to hold a healthy orientation to food if they hear us talking about our diets? Even if we are not overtly critiquing our children’s bodies or controlling what they eat, they are watching us closely and seeing how we treat ourselves. Of course, we all have moments of body shame, that’s OK, but try and have your moment away from your kids. Also, see if you can navigate these tougher moments with the same attitude of self-compassion, kindness, and respect you would show your child. Also, if you are struggling with this, consider getting help from a qualified mental health professional.
In sum, raising body positive kids in the fat-phobic, diet-obsessed culture we live in can feel daunting but there are numerous ways to support our kids in developing a kind, self-compassionate relationship to their bodies.