The general attitude about what makes a body beautiful is ever-evolving in society. As a parent, it is sometimes hard to find ways to promote a positive body image for your kids because parents often struggle with their own body image issues, kids see media depictions of bodies that don't look like theirs, they are bombarded with unhealthy habits, and their peers tend to discuss body image in less-than-helpful ways.
Finding ways to encourage healthy eating habits without labeling certain foods as "bad" is something I struggle with daily. Just the other day, my son commented to my mother-in-law that his chocolate milk had too much sugar in it. Of course, he had already drank most of it, so he wasn't complaining, just simply pointing out what he had heard me say time and time again about sugary drinks. It was disheartening to hear a 4-year-old comment on the sugar content of his drink while enjoying a morning treat with his grandmother. It really made me re-think how I model healthy habits for my children. After all, they are little sponges when it comes to processing information, especially when it comes from mom, dad, or another main caregiver that they love and respect.
So, when I stand in front of a mirror critiquing my body, they see and hear that too. Fortunately, I am learning how to make small changes that have a large impact on how they view themselves and helping my kids have a positive relationship with their body. Here are some low-key ways that experts say you can incorporate body positivity into your kids' lives.
1. Just Model Healthy Habits Without Making A Big Deal About It
While it might seem like a drastic step, parents can avoid having to label any food as "good" or "bad" by just simply not purchasing things you don't want in your home. You're in charge of the grocery shopping anyway, right? But you don't have to make a big deal about it either.
Meredith Dillon, RD, LDN, CDE, registered dietitian at Children’s National Health System, tells Romper, "Research shows that the more you talk about weight loss to a child, the more likely they are to be overweight in the future. A parent’s job is to set up a healthy environment and let the child learn through watching healthy behaviors."
2. You Use Different Words To Describe Your Own Body
This is one that I personally need to work on. Re-framing my own body image as a mom is hard, but by selecting different words, Dillon says that kids can pick up body-positive traits and language from their parents.
"Parents should avoid talking about the way their bodies look in front of their children, regardless if the comment is positive or not. Instead, talk about how healthy behaviors are helping your body function," Dillon says. "For example, instead of saying, 'Wow, I really have lost weight since I started hitting the gym,' parents can say, 'Wow, I was never able to carry this many groceries without getting tired, my muscles must be happy from going to gym!'”
3. You Talk About Bodies In Terms Of Service
In the same way parents can re-word their own descriptions of their bodies, Dillon says that parents can also select certain words and phrases when they talk to their children about how their own bodies work to help kids foster a positive relationship with their bodies, like discussing how the body works or how it has served them that day.
"A good way to start the conversation is asking your child questions about how their body served them each day before bed. You can ask, 'How did your legs help you today? Did you run outside?' Ask about different body parts each night so that children learn to become thankful for each part and can trust their body to take care of them, regardless of what it looks like," Dillon says.
4. You Speak To Your Child's Character
Rather than discussing how a child looks, try talking about your child's character. Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director at The Clay Center For Young Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that this can help younger kids understand that their bodies are more than just how they appear on the outside.
"When talking with small kids — including commenting on your friends' posts of their children online — take an interest in what they’re reading, their hobbies, and topics that interest them rather than talking only about how cute they are," Dr. Beresin tells Romper. "For example, if your friend posts a video of their little girl dressed up as a fairy princess, performing a magical dance, instead of commenting, 'What a beautiful princess she is!' consider, 'What a beautiful dance — I love her imagination!' It is essential for young children to internalize the message that who you are is more important than what you look like."
5. You Avoid Trending Diets
According to Dr. Beresin, parents who take part in the latest diet fads can be sending the wrong message to their kids. When parents partake in trending diets, it could send a signal to their children that these flashy fad diets are healthy, which they may not always be the case. Instead, Dr. Beresin recommends turning to sound professional advice when seeking new nutritional habits.
"The diet, fitness, fashion, and 'wellness' industries promote the moralization of clean eating and exercise and give conflicting messages about the merits of various diet plans that can be challenging for even the most educated adults to figure out, and many of which are unproven and can be dangerous to health," Dr. Beresin says. "There are many websites that provide sound advice, videos, and ways of eating in healthful ways, such as the National Eating Disorders Association and Common Sense Media. Parents and young people need guidance to sort out sites and forums that promote health and do not reinforce unhealthy dietary practices."
6. You Help Kids Manage Stress & Peer Pressure
The link between stress and unhealthy body image is one that Dillon acknowledges exists. "Research shows that stress about peer pressure and uncertainty for the future can contribute to poor body image in children. Making sure that your children know that their appearance does not prevent them from reaching their goals can help with this," she says.
Dr. Jennifer MacLeamy, executive director of Newport Academy, a nationwide mental health rehabilitation facility for teens, agrees and offers this advice for parents to help children manage stress and peer pressure. "For children as well as adults, stress can release hormones that impede the body's natural ability to regulate weight, which can contribute to a negative cycle of stress and unhealthy weight gain," she tells Romper. "Encouraging children (and parents!) to engage in mindfulness activities can help to decrease baseline stress and bring a sense of calm and well-being. Mindfulness does not have to be a challenging process — it can be as simple as slowly blowing bubbles together, taking a walk outside and observing nature with all five senses, or counting while you breathe together."
7. You Ditch Your Scale
Dr. MacLeamy also recommends that parents model a focus on their health instead of their weight and watch how they react to the number on the scale, suggesting parents consider removing scales from the equation altogether.
"When speaking about body image, it’s important to focus on health and not weight. For example, focus on nutrition and fun fitness activities you can share with your child versus obsessing over calorie counting and the number on the scale," she says. "If possible, remove the scale entirely or keep it somewhere out of the way so your children don't begin to think that it is necessary to keep track of your weight on a daily basis in order to be healthy; most experts recommend checking your weight no more than once a week.
8. You Ask Your Child Open-Ended Questions
Having conversations about body image can be super tough. Dr. MacLeamy recommends phrasing questions in a way that leave your child free to open up and share with you. "If you sense your child is struggling with issues of weight or body image, encourage them to share their feelings and concerns by using open-ended questions — once again making the focus of the conversation on overall health rather than weight or appearance," Dr. MacLeamy says. "Asking your children about their interests, particularly around physical exercise, can be a great way to encourage healthy movement and play without making weight and shape the focal point."
9. You Cook Healthy Meals Together
Focusing on healthy habits to create a positive body image can start in the kitchen as a family, explains Dr. MacLeamy. "One of the easiest ways to encourage healthy habits is to get the whole family involved. Try cooking healthy meals together, or doing fun fitness activities everyone can agree on," she says. "Ask your children what their favorite foods are and learn to make them together, or give your children an exciting feeling of agency by letting them be in charge of choosing or preparing the family meal one night per week. Try focusing on choosing foods with as many colors as possible, rather than forcing the idea of vegetables — if your family's plates are filled with a rainbow of natural colors (think carrots, blueberries, sweet potatoes, peas), the likelihood is good that you will be eating a healthy meal."
10. You Exercise Together In A Fun Way
Registered dietician and fitness professional Anita Mirchandani says that focusing on fitness activities that parents and kids can do together can not only improve their outlook on their body, but it can be a fun time for bonding as well. "Go to the park, or take your child to a class. As much as you can do with them, they’ll see that you enjoy and they’ll want to spend that time with you," she tells Romper.
Dr. Beresin also encourages families to take the time to engage in activities that require physical endurance, but may not be as overt as hitting the gym. "Encourage kids to engage in regular physical activity by participating in organized sports or hiking, biking, or swimming with friends and family. Focus on the joy of movement, having fun, and prioritizing strength and function rather than enduring exercise to 'earn' food or to look a certain way," he says.
11. You Put Your Phone Down
One of the most interesting ways any of the experts that I contacted suggests modeling body positivity is by limiting the time you spend on your phone. Modeling how we want our kids to engage in phone usage can go as far as helping prevent eating disorders, according to Dr. Beresin.
"We are all hostages to digital media. Teens and young adults are often driven by FOMO (fear of missing out), even if it is a chat that contains devastating comments about peers. Adults are not the best role models. For example, in recent research on distracted driving, parents who forbid use of cell phones behind the wheel for their kids commonly use navigation and music apps and receive calls themselves when driving. Conversations about the value of spending face time with others or engaging in activities that are non-digital is an important guideline for parents and kids alike," he says. "This is not to say that taking care of oneself and making an effort when it comes to appearance is not important. It’s just not the most important thing. And while we don’t believe it is reasonable or even desirable to ban the use of screen time for our kids, a sound set of principles and awareness of its impact may be a sound measure to prevent and understand its role in the development of eating disorders."
12. You Arm Yourself With Knowledge About Body Positivity
Knowledge truly is power. According to Dr. Beresin, there are a myriad of resources available to parents that can serve as educational tools to help encourage their children to be body-positive.
"Girls on the Run promotes fitness and self-esteem in girls by helping them train for a 5k. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers a toolkit to help young people become more savvy media consumers. The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains a website for parents that has entire sections devoted to nutrition, exercise, and responsible media use, including tips for developing a family media use plan. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Facts for Families include tips for social media use in adolescents and information about teen eating disorders," he says.
13. You Talk About How Food Fuels Your Body
Mirchandani suggests using specific language about food that can encourage a positive relationship with how children perceive what food is doing for their bodies. She says that talking about behaviors that make you feel good are key. "For example, [when] drinking water, [say] 'hydration helps my skin stay soft,' or 'eating vegetables will help me stay strong,' etc. 'Protein is good for your muscles and here are some protein-rich foods.' Conversation bits like these are helpful," she says.
14. You Monitor Your Child's Use Of Media
Dr. Beresin recommends that parents remain vigilant about their children's media consumption, as the negative influences in the media or in online social platforms can lead to unhealthy body image perception.
"Digital media is perhaps one of the newest and most powerful agents in our culture. It is well established that media has a profound impact on body image," he says. "Research has demonstrated that young children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to identifying with celebrities who are thin. While we have come a long way in our TV shows over the years to include characters with a wide range of body types and sizes, digital media now spans much broader than TV, and is ever present on a daily basis in many of our lives. We don’t know how powerful the 'selfie; culture will be on body image, but it appears to be a powerful and at times, dangerous force. Teens and young adults are particularly caught up in the drama of their Instagram, Snapchat, and texting world."