Growing Body Confidence in Children
Roughly half of American children report feeling dissatisfaction for their own bodies even before adolescence. Poor body image at the very least, leads to low self confidence and poor mental health and sometimes to dangerous eating disorders. When I see a client with disordered eating, we dig into their earliest memories of having poor body image and when they started thinking about restricting their food intake. What thoughts were they having at that time? What were the origins of those thoughts? What experiences led them to having those thoughts? In my experience, I’ve found that body dissatisfaction often starts early in elementary school. It often starts at home. In some cases, a parent begins to notice a child getting heavier and will begin modifying their diets. Sometimes a child sees mom dieting, eating different than everyone else or disparaging her own body by verbally self-shaming. Not all kids will develop eating disorders from these experiences, but all kids will develop negative attitudes about body size. They may either learn to hate their own bodies or repeat negative body talk with and against their peers on the playground. Poor body confidence that starts before or during adolescence remains fixed well into adulthood.
As they become exposed to adult television and social media, they encounter no shortage of body shaming and diet culture. As parents, we have to be aware of this. We can hold out on social media as long as we can. Studies show that social media is a self-esteem killer. Teens are much more likely to have depression and low self-esteem when using social media. Easy access to photo editing apps means teens are carefully designing their own photos, even trimming their own bodies. The result is an impossible pressure on girls to look both skinny and curvy in all the right places. Social media influencers are targeting young girls with all types of dieting products. We need to have discussions to prepare them and talk to them about what they are seeing.
We can empower kids with body confidence before adolescence and be ready to combat the diet culture messages they will meet as they get older. Here are some ways to raise body confidence:
Avoid talking about weight.
Don’t talk about your own weight. Don’t talk about anyone else’s weight.
Avoid talking about diets.
If you are on a restrictive diet, stop. Look into “Intuitive Eating” and “Body Kindness”. These are both great healthy eating philosophies that do not encourage restriction and help heal your relationship with food.
If you must continue to diet, don’t talk about dieting in front of your kids. Refrain from skipping meals, drinking meal replacements or eating special diet foods in front of them.
Avoid self-body shaming. Make an effort to counter every negative thought with something positive.
Keep a daily journal. Add a line for gratitude for something positive your body has done or is doing for you.
Honor the human body.
Do talk about how strong and amazing their bodies are. Talk about how well they are functioning. Talk about how perfectly they carry and protect their brains and their spirit. Talk about what you appreciate about your body.
Ask them how they feel about their bodies and how their bodies are feeling. What messages do their bodies send them? Where do they feel pain, excitement, sadness in their bodies? How and where do they feel hunger and fullness? Where and how do they feel exhaustion? Teach them to respect body signals.
Talk about what their bodies need in terms of nourishment and strengthening so they can continue to function well.
Teach them food neutrality.
Teach them that foods are neither good nor bad. There are foods that are more nourishing and make us feel better. These foods help us live longer. We want to eat more of those foods.
Teach them to mind their own plate and ignore the advice of the local food police.
Talk to them about what they may be seeing on social media.
Ask them what they are seeing and how it makes them feel. Talk to them about the reality of the highlight reel. Do they notice that photos have been cropped? How does it feel when they get “likes”? Does it change their mood? Do other peoples’ photos change their mood?
Talk to them about diet culture. Discuss that the diet industry uses influencers to promote unrealistic body types to sell their diet products.
Be a social media role model.
Post silly, imperfect, unfiltered photos of yourself. Follow body positive influencers and ecourage your child to do the same. Do a quick search of “body positive influencers” and you will find many.
Communicate and check in often. They will continuously be bombarded with negative messages about “imperfect” bodies and diet products. Help them to process these messages as the fear based sales tactics that they are. Help them to appreciate their own bodies and respect all others.