As someone who has struggled with body image, feeling like I should lose weight when I would aggressively compare myself to other girls my age (and svelte models in Diet Pepsi commercials), I had to work very hard to break the cycle of hating my appearance. But I wasn’t born with negative feelings about my body. Those were learned. So wen I had kids, I swore they weren’t going to develop that same negative attitude, and I have put consistent effort into finding ways to make my kids body positive. I knew there were always going to be outside forces that conspire against their confidence, such as unrealistic depictions of human bodies in the media, so it was important that my husband and I build a solid foundation about what it means to be body positive.
This meant tossing the “dress guidelines” their public school sends home every year when the weather gets warmer. It basically reads like a list of things girls can’t wear to protect boys from being distracted by exposed skin. On the hit list are items like spaghetti straps, shorts and skirts that don’t come down to fingertip length, and tank tops. Since these items are mostly worn by female-identifying children, I find it totally irresponsible to put the burden entirely on girls, and their parents, to police their wardrobe as an attempt to protect them from boys who can’t keep their hands to themselves, or teachers who would be distracted (I can’t even with that). My kids’ school and school bus are not air-conditioned, so I will allow my children to wear whatever they need to in order to be comfortable. I agree with the school’s policy of no open-toed shoes, since that can lead to injuries on the playground. But on a 90-degree day, my daughter shouldn’t have to think twice about wearing a tank top that fully covers her torso and is clean.
Beyond the notion of feeling good about their bodies because of how they are dressed, is the idea that their bodies themselves should be celebrated. Their shape and size are no indicators of the humor and intelligence and curiosity my children possess. I know what it’s like to hold yourself back because you think everyone is scrutinizing your appearance when your jeans feel too tight, and I don’t want them ever to hide in the shadows of shame.
My kids both favor comfortable, stretchy clothes they can move around in easily. They naturally don’t want their bodies to be hindered in any way. To perpetuate this organic body positivity, I follow these rules in our house. I hope it will make a difference when they graduate into their teens, when being self-conscious is part of the deal.
Don’t Compliment Them On Their Appearance…
As cute as I think my kids are, I bite my tongue to prevent me from telling them so. Instead, I focus on their attitude, their effort, and their cooperation on hectic weekday mornings. I compliment them for things they chose to do well, not for their genetic make-up.
… But Do Praise Them For Keeping Clean
If I tell my kids they look good, it’s because they are clean. I don’t know how it happened, but my usual water-loving children have developed a phobia of the bathtub this past year. I am sure they are testing me, but it’s important that they develop good hygiene habits at an early age.
I do wonder if I take things too far, though. When I inform my 10-year-old daughter that it’s perfectly fine for her to wear jeans a few times before washing them, if they aren’t obviously soiled anywhere, she is horrified. So, she hates showers, but is obsessed with keeping her jeggings spotless. OK, tween.
Don’t Comment On How Much They’re Eating…
Sometimes my kids just don’t feel like eating. Other times they are ravenous. I’m guessing this ebb and flow of their appetite corresponds to the rate of their growth, but will I ever really know? When they were babies, I would obsess over making sure they got the recommended amount of breast milk every day, and this focus on food carried over as they grew into big kids. It takes a lot of effort for me to do so, but I tamp down my concentration of how much they are eating. I was raised to clean my plate and I don’t think that’s a healthy way to think about food. I want my children to listen to their bodies.
Of course, when my son pulls the old “I’m not hungry for dinner, so I’ll just have dessert” move, I call him out on that B.S. right away.
… But Do Praise Their Consumption Of Healthy Food
My son is on a cucumber kick. My daughter’s vegetable go-to is a red pepper. Do I love that they are reluctant to change up their veggie game? No. I still serve up different vegetables, including things I want to eat, and if they wrinkle their nose at them I simply shrug. At least there are some healthy items they actually enjoy eating, and not just feel obligated to get in their bodies because their parents told them to.
Don’t Ban Junk Food…
My parents hid junk food to keep it out of our sight, and I think that contributed to the eating disorder I developed: bingeing and hoarding sweets. I vowed not to have that same forbidden attitude about junk food with my own kids. While they are fans of sweets, they know they are a “sometimes” food and are meant to be enjoyed, but not relied upon to grow bigger, stronger, or smarter.
… But Do Model Reasonable Amounts Of It
I offer my kids dessert nightly. This may seem like a lot, but it’s actually not a lot. It’s a little dark chocolate, or a few forkfuls of cake, or a half-cup of ice cream. It’s enough to satisfy that craving for a sweet at the end of a meal, without fearing a full-on sugar rush before bedtime.
Also, my kids rarely see me or my husband partake in sweets. I’m not as active as I used to be, so I don’t want to eat dessert often. When I do have it, I want to really enjoy it, so having it rarely helps to convey the message that I don’t need it to be happy.
Don’t Compare Their Physicality To That Of Other Kids...
As serious as my son is about soccer, he is 7-years-old and, though he is good, he is not the best. Even if was “the best” on his team, or his league, or even in the state, there would be some kid, somewhere, better than him. Since we’re not grooming him to become a professional athlete, we’re not putting pressure on him to be better than anyone other than himself. He may be the fastest at Saturday’s practice, but on Tuesday there might be another kid who beats him.
I know how it is to feel that you’ll never be better than someone. When I was on the swim team as a kid, I would always race against myself. I’d try to beat my own time, not somebody else’s. It’s the only way I could feel a bit better about how I was doing, even without beating any other swimmers.
… But Do Remark On Their Own Relative Achievements
Even if my kid wasn’t practicing soccer multiple days a week, he’d probably continue to get a little faster and stronger day by day. He’s growing, so being able to comment on how he’s that much quicker or more powerful now than he was a month ago isn’t that difficult to prove. I know from my own experience it’s hard to tell if I’m ever getting any better at something, so outside perspective helps. So I try to let my kids know that I’m noticing how their bodies are serving them better every day.
Don’t Badmouth Your Own Body...
Having a child was a wake-up call in how I started talking to myself about my appearance. I have dealt with body image issues since I first tried dieting at age 8. It took me until my older kid was in pre-school to realize that she might pick up on all my negative self-talk. If I couldn’t model the behavior I wanted her to exhibit, how could I ever expect her to love and respect her own body? I had to stop, not only saying that I hated how I looked (which lasted well beyond that fourth trimester), but quit thinking it as well. I still struggle with being hyper-critical of my appearance, when my weight goes up, or if my hair’s frizziness can’t be controlled, but I don’t let my children catch on.
… But Do Take Compliments Of Your “Stomach Pillow” In Stride
My kids love cuddling with me, and when my son was about 4, he told me why: “You’re so squishy and soft, like a pillow.” The pre-kids version of myself would have felt her self-esteem plummet to subterranean levels. Now, I’m kind of proud of having the kind of baby my kids love. It’s not about how I think I look in my clothes. Instead, it’s how I feel to my children to give them that sense of security and unconditional love. I still harbor resentment against my squishy stomach, but at least someone is getting something out of it.
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