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.