How to Not Screw Up Your Kids' Body Image

(more of a reader than a watcher? Me, too. Here’s a more in depth look at what we discussed.)

You know your kids watch you. They repeat things you said two years ago, they are quick to call out any hypocracy, depending on their age they may be obviously hanging on your every word or acting like they aren’t paying any attention to you at all.

But they are.

There are a million theories in the parenting world but one pervasive theme, even amongst theories that blatantly contradict each other, is that the behavior we model has a significant impact on how our kids think, feel, and behave.


“Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work.

The great news is that it’s never too late to change. So if you see your behavior in anything I’m about to discuss, no worries and no judgment. Elaine & I are moms; we know perfect parenting doesn’t exist.

If your kid is really little, you won’t need to have a “I’m changing the way I do things” conversation. If your kid is older, they will notice a shift. Go ahead and point it out before they do. An “I realize that there are some things I could be doing better around food and body so that I can be a great role model. Here are some changes you might see. I’m happy to talk more about them…” can go a long way.

Don’t Insult Bodies

Some of us grew up with family members or friends who weren’t shy about putting down a fat* person as long as they don’t hear. Just like our kids mimic our values and behaviors, you may be doing the same.


Whether it’s a “How can they live with themselves?” or an “At least I’m not that big” or a more subtle, “Wow!,” it’s not only (obviously) unkind to the person your referencing it sends a clear message that being big will make them unacceptable to you. You, the person who actually loves them unconditionally. They already know that being fat in this culture isn’t appreciated, you underscoring it doesn’t help.

Similarly, reproachful “He’s so skinny!” or “She should eat a sandwich!” conveys a similar message. Different cultures praise different shapes. No shape is bad. Even if you suspect it’s unhealthy.

Now these comments happen, the parent is rarely thinking about their child’s body. They’re thinking about their own body or their own insecurities. So it doesn’t feel like a damaging comment. But having worked with thousands of clients we’re here to tell you very clearly, it is.

Don’t Praise Bodies

What’s wrong with praising bodies? Your kid wants you to respect them and like them. When you praise someone’s body, they see a way to be more respected and liked by you. Kids (and many adults) don’t realize that someone who is a natural size 8 and has been one most of their lives isn’t going to sustain being a size 2. They think it’s as simple as calories in, calories burned. Diet culture reinforces that because it makes them a great deal of money to sell you something you can’t keep.

Maybe someone appears very fit. She fits the beauty ideal of thin with muscles. Pointing out how good she looks puts an emphasis on things someone can’t control and also assumes she is “taking care of herself.” You have no idea how many women we’ve seen in our office who fit that beauty ideal and how the constant reinforcement keeps them feeling stuck in their eating disorder. Starting that with your kid sets up a challenging standard. It’s not hard to keep aesthetic admiration to yourself. For your kids it’s worth it.

Do Praise Other Things

Are you as vocal about people’s talents, intelligence, work ethic, sense of humor, thoughtfulness, openness, honesty, joyfulness, etc as you are about their appearance? When you think of who you want your kid to become, the best version of them, I’m guessing you think of those things. If you tracked the number of times in a day or week you mentioned someone’s appearance and the number of times you praised a character trait, which would be higher?

Practice Food Flexibility

This is a big one. Kale is not better than Oreos. Is kale more nutrient dense? Sure! But our emotional health is more important than an Oreo.

The emphasis we put on noble food choices, the good food/bad food dichotomy, actually do us all more harm than good. Being concerned about an Oreo and having to keep them out of the house because you can’t be trusted with them is a sign that the Oreo has actual power over you. Wrinkling your nose at “junk food” or feeling guilty when you eat it shows that it has a pull. The goal would be to feel totally neutral about food and to model that for your kids. Then you can choose freely what you want to eat. Sometimes it’ll be kale and sometimes it’ll be Oreos.

I know that’s not as easy as it sounds. It may make you feel anxious or even angry. If that’s the case, know that we can help you find that neutrality. Or if you feel pretty solid in your food and body and have concerns about your teen, we can help there.

Give us a call, 828-333-3654 and we’ll get you on the schedule.

*Let’s talk about the word fat. It’s jarring to read, isn’t it. Aren’t we supposed to be sensitive to this stuff? Absolutely. Here’s the beauty. Fat isn’t a bad thing. That brunette isn’t a bad thing. We sometimes say “people in bigger bodies” or “person of size” but ultimately it’s our culture’s judgment that makes the word “fat” into an insult. As two therapists with thin privilege, we follow the lead of many fat Fat Activists. But that’s a blogpost for another day.


10 Steps to Accepting Your Body

 

  1. First, and most importantly, look at what’s underneath the negativity. I’m not talking about your body here, I’m talking about your feelings. Are you overwhelmed? Feeling unappreciated? Traumatized? Lost? Our bodies often become a scapegoat for other dissatisfactions and hurts. This is how you can have a “good body day” back to back with a “bad body day” when there’s clearly no legitimate, measurable change in body composition day to day. Maybe this sparks a list of all the things you don’t like about life right now or maybe you can’t identify anything. I assure you, if you can’t think of ANYTHING that isn’t working for you in life besides your body, you’re disconnected from your feelings. I’ve been a therapist (and a person) way too long to buy that your body is the problem. Whether you know what’s hard in life right now or not, start writing your list now. If you don’t know what to list write your version of “1. I don’t know what to write. 2. This is stupid. 3. This has nothing to do with my body.” Keep listing until something not body related pops up. Seriously, do this now before starting the next step.     
     
  2. Have compassion for having to deal with what’s on your list. Sometimes our lists are long and heart-wrenching. Sometimes they are a manageable list of minor complaints. We are more likely to have body hatred when it is the former. If you are reading these 10 steps I am guessing you have some hard stuff you’re dealing with (or not dealing with, but hard stuff nonetheless). Validate that deep down, you feel like crap and it’s getting projected on to your thighs or your belly or the dimples in your butt. You don’t have to fix or change this right this second. Just be a little curious about how that happened. 
     
  3. Take a look at the spoken and unspoken messages you have received and given about bodies. The media is easy to pick on. They basically walk around with a dunce cap on all the time asking to be blamed. But what about your family? Was your mom constantly talking about how fat she was or did she have an air of confidence no matter her body shape? Did your divorced dad only date painfully thin women or was there body diversity amongst the women he was attracted to? Did you ever tell your best friend not to worry about her weight, that she could diet & exercise it off or did you tell her she’s beautiful & wish she could love herself as she is right now? Have you told yourself you’ll be more lovable when you’re smaller/more toned or do you fully accept that you are lovable this exact moment. These are the messages that spin us into misery or confidence. The way you think about yourself determines how you feel about yourself. You can’t spew shaming messages and expect yourself to somehow be confident. 
     
  4. I mentioned the media. Are you consuming media that make it harder to love yourself? Do you look at gossip or fashion magazines? Do you click on the links for the best & worst celebrity beach bodies? Is watching weight loss shows, shows where appearance is discussed for more than a few seconds, shows that only employ actors who fit within a rigid beauty ideal a part of your life? Do the movies you watch have people of differing shapes, sizes, ethnicities, gender expressions & abilities? Do you listen to music that describes the non-physical attributes of women? Try consuming media that doesn’t conform to the unattainable attractiveness standards.
     
  5. Wear clothes that fit, feel comfortable & look good. Please, please, please don’t squeeze into a size that doesn’t really fit because it’s a more “desirable” size. Everyone feels fat when their pants seams are about to burst. If your waistband cuts into your stomach so hard you’re constantly aware of the bulge above it, you’re going to feel fat. This doesn’t mean you have to live in yoga pants and too-big t-shirts. You will feel more confident if you are wearing clothes you like in the size that fits, even if you hate the size, than you will in a size that doesn’t fit. You may hate the right size & fear you’ll be aware of it, but it’s not going to whisper “this is a size __” throughout the day as often as your too tight clothes will scream “you’re fat” every time you bend your knee, sit down, sigh, pull them down and generally move. 
     
  6. Stop assuming that thin people are happier & more successful than you. Perhaps there are things that are easier for them in life. Perhaps some thin people are happy and successful. You are not unhappy or less successful because you aren’t as thin. Yes, there is size discrimination. First, vet whether or not you actually qualify for the category that gets discriminated about. Be real. If you’re a size 6 when you want to be a size 2, this does not count for you. If you are a person of size and have been discriminated against I want to validate that all discrimination is unacceptable and disgusting. That doesn’t mean all thin people are happy. It doesn’t mean they all succeed. I have rail thin women in my office who hate themselves to the depth of their being. I have skinny men in my office who are too depressed to apply for a job, much less get one. Your path to happiness and success is not paved in lost pounds. Your life doesn’t start when you hit a particular weight. Your life is right now. 
     
  7. Get okay with the word “fat”. Yes, that other F-word. The F-word that is almost less acceptable to say! The Fat Acceptance Movement is doing a great job reclaiming the word fat. In the way the LGBTQ community reappropriated “queer” and intellectuals proudly call themselves “nerds” and environmental activists wear wear “tree-hugger” buttons and folks who live in the country might call themselves “rednecks,” taking back the formerly pejorative “fat” takes some of the sting out of it. Here’s the deal: you have fat on your body. I have fat on my body. I’m not a medical expert, but I’m pretty sure the only people with no fat on their bodies had it eaten off by insects (as in dead, not some new fat-sucking product). We eat foods with fat grams in them which make them taste better and keep us satisfied longer. Fat is not a bad thing. It’s an inevitability. It’s been used as an insult for so long that it makes people shudder to hear it. When you saw it in bold above, did you not cringe a little? Fat doesn’t have to be an insult, it can be a descriptor. People will not be comfortable. That’s ok. You don’t have to make them comfortable. I told a sales associate at a store that I preferred a thicker fabric because I have cellulite & don’t like to highlight it. She looked at me with a combination of pity & discomfort. I wasn’t insulting myself or being self-deprecating- I was simply stating a fact that I’m usually pretty neutral about (for the exceptions, see #1). Someday, when “fat” is a more neutral descriptor, she may remember the times she got squirmy when people referred to it. 
     
  8. Find a body image role model. This is hard. It feels like there aren’t a lot out there. If you don’t personally know someone, pick an activist (really anyone who accepts their body as is & talks about it is an activist in my book). Search “fat acceptance” and see what you come up with. Even if you are a smaller person, the fat acceptance movement is for you. The less rigid we all are about beauty ideals, the better. If you know someone who accepts him/herself, ask how they got there. Maybe they got through adolescence unscathed & it never occurred to them to be self-critical, but that’s pretty rare. You’re more likely to hear the story of how someone fought for self-love & didn’t give up, found a higher priority or were inspired by someone else. Sometimes it’s great to see an example of how to disengage with the negative self-talk & what freedom it brings. Conversely, notice what happens when you’re around your friends who struggle with body image. 
     
  9. Stop Fat Talk. Make a rule. Calling yourself fat (i.e. using it as an insult) never made you skinny. Fat talk is actually far more likely to increase your weight. If it’s a safe environment to do so, ask the people you live with to make it a Fat Talk Free Zone. If someone starts complaining about his/her body, ask how they’re feeling about the rest of life. S/he will probably feel better after a conversation about the boss from hell or the class that will tank his/her GPA than the usual “You’re SO not fat” with an offer to go to the gym together more. 
     
  10. For the love of all that is good in the world, stop dieting. I know it feels like such an accomplishment to get through a day being “good” and that seeing your weight go down makes you feel like you can take on the world. But you know it won’t last. It’s not because you are weak-willed or lazy; it’s because no diet is sustainable. You aren’t necessarily “stuck” at your current weight, either. There is an alternative where you are healthy, all foods are “legal” and you don’t need obsession, a calorie counter or a meal plan to feel good in your body. 

 

Does this sound like the life you want to live? We’d love to help you get there. Give us a call at 828-333-3654 or email me at hello@allisonpuryear.com if you’d like more personalized help.