Quick: What kind of body image do you want your daughter or son to grow up with? A healthy one, right? With a sense of appreciation for what that beautiful body does, more than how it looks, and with enough respect to take good care of it?
Now answer this: How’s your own body image?
Too many of us (ahem, me included) have spent our whole lives seeing our reflections in insecure, distorted ways. We grew up in a mind-messing mash-up of crazy diets, crazy workouts, and an unrealistic and narrow standard of beauty.
As parents, we can unwittingly pass that baggage on to our kids. Or we can do this: We can use our example, our encouragement, and our guidance to give kids—especially daughters—a far more positive and healthy sense of their appearance.
That’s what Maya Maor, a sociologist at Ben Gurion University in Israel, wants us to do. Maor and colleague Julie Cwikel, founder of the BGU Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion, recently published a study on the ways moms had successfully combatted body dissatisfaction in their now-young-adult daughters.They need all the help we can give. Kids with poor body image are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and life-long low self-esteem. Thankfully, there’s a blooming body-pride movement that’s empowering girls of all shapes and sizes to wear Lulus and push back on dress-code rules they see as narrow-minded and unfair. But empowering cultural influences like these are a trickle compared to the deluge of Kardashians, selfie-improvement apps, trends for “thigh gaps,” bikini waxes, and teen Botox and fillers.
And the whole crazy cycle starts scary young: Half of girls and one-third of boys say they wish they had thinner bodies—at ages 6 to 8! “Girls today are preoccupied with their weight as early as the age of 4,” notes Maor, who also teaches at Haifa University. Before kindergarten!
The good news, Maor told me: As parents, we can change all that by influencing our kids in amazingly positive ways with these five simple strategies:
1. Filter out the talk about appearance.
Avoid letting your child hear you criticize your weight or size, or his or hers, or anybody else’s. What Maor calls ‘diet talk’ or ‘fat shaming,’ includes even innocuous-seeming comments like:
- “Oh I ate too much.”
- “I feel so fat.”
- “You look so skinny and pretty today.”
- “Does this make me look fat?”
- “Don’t eat so much/you’ve had enough.”
- “She looked like a cow in that dress.”
- “You have such a pretty face. When you lose that baby fat….”
When our kids hear comments like these, they feel shame, guilt, and confusion. Not healthy. For the same reasons, it’s best to nix letting them see us wince when we look in the mirror or step on the scale.
Worth noting: A recent study showed that 40 percent of moms avoid being in family photos because they don’t like the way they look. Important: Get in there and smile, no matter what you think your thighs looks like.
2. Talk up the dangers of fad diets and eating disorders.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, negative body image can be one of the first triggers of an eating disorder. Planting early the idea that eating disorders are dangerous can be protective, Maor says.
Some points the moms in her study made with their daughters:
- That some people slip from normal “dieting” into full blown eating disorders before they know it.
- That the health risks of eating disorders include heart damage, other organ damage—and death.
- That the “high” of hunger and exercising can become addictive to a dangerous degree.
- That it’s healthier to carry a little extra weight (which is common in puberty) than to risk extreme eating or exercising habits.
3. Show your child you like him or her “as is.”
Our kids look to us for reassurance. And sometimes without realizing it, we back off on physical or verbal affection when our kids gain weight, Maor’s research shows, which can add to a negative self image. On the flip side, embracing your child always, no matter her appearance, removes the shame that can keep an overweight child from losing weight.
Positive reinforcement from parents also disrupts kids’ self-criticism and the relentless pressure they face to fit in and collect likes. Be free with compliments and hugs—but disconnect them from size and appearance. Love your child for love’s sake.
4. Point out wacko pop culture messages.
Just take a look at these airbrushed celebrity photos to get the full picture of what our kids are up against: Katy Perry’s breasts get bigger, the proudly curvy Beyonce is given a thigh gap, and even perfect little Prince George gets touched up—at the age of 10 months.
Ever say “yuck” to a preschooler about someone smoking in a TV show? Or point out examples of bullying, hypocrisy, or racial injustice to older kids? Maor suggests doing the same when you see unrealistic or unhealthy messages about appearance:
- “Nobody’s waist is really that small. That’s called airbrushing.”
- “Why do you think all the anchormen are wearing suits but the women are in low-cut dresses? That’s called a double standard. They could all be in business clothes.”
Teaching critical thinking opens our kids’ eyes to these harmful messages and gives them a language for talking about them. Point out that people come in many different body types that can’t really be changed to all look one way.
5. Broaden your definition of a healthy body.
Health isn’t measured by a small jean size. Let your child know being “healthy” includes well being, fitness, and self fulfillment, Maor says.
When you do talk about food and what to eat, keep the conversation focused on food’s benefits: a source of health, deliciousness, energy, family time. Avoid talking about it in terms of calories, numbers of servings, or portion size. Instead of restricting food, make plentiful amounts of nutritious food available.
Maor calls this “positivity.” One mom in her study avoided talking about junk food or soda as “fattening;” instead she would point out that they weren’t tasty or good for your body. Another encouraged her daughter to respect her body through making healthy food choices.
Ditto physical activity: Look for ways your child enjoys being active for the joy of it, rather than something that must be done three times a week for 50 minutes.
If your child seems overweight, get your doctor’s input about how to handle it, but keep it framed as an issue of health: How to make healthier food choices that provide more energy and are better for the heart and blood, how to get more exercise to boost health numbers like blood pressure and blood sugar. That distances the weight from being a problem of attractiveness or self worth.
Whatever your child’s size, prevention is powerful, Maor says. A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health (September, 2015), for example, found that teens with a negative body image wind up heavier over time, adding 6.4 points to their BMI over the next 10 years.
The payoff for your carefully chosen words and unconditional love can be a young adult who’s truly healthy inside and out. And who knows? “These daughters can help empower their mothers and pass on their new sense of body pride to them,” she told me. Wouldn’t that be something?