As parents who want to raise healthy kids, we often put a lot of thought into providing adequate nutrition for growing minds and bodies. We research and prepare healthy meals and snacks. We worry about how much water they’ve had today or how much sugar is in their favorite cereal bar.
What if I told you that a positive body image is one of the greatest tools you can help your child cultivate for a healthy and happy life?
Many of us have spent years or decades at war with our own bodies. Even though research shows dieting does not lead to long-term weight loss, the diet industry still brings in billions of dollars yearly, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). But how are they selling diets, plans, and magic potions that they, and we, know don’t actually work?
The marketing plan is pretty simple when you think about it. First, the diet industry bombards us with messages that we aren’t good enough as we are. Then, they promise the perfect solution – which will only cost $49.95! And finally, when the product or diet fails (and most likely it will), we are blamed for our “lack of willpower” and told to buy more or different products or plans.
I know it’s not what you want to hear, but we’ve known that dieting doesn’t work for a long time. Past attempts at weight loss are a significant predictor of obesity. Dieting is a losing battle, and I don’t mean pounds or inches. Further, obsessing over the scale, restricting, and hating our bodies is no way to live, and it’s not the legacy we want to pass on to our children.
Unfortunately, pressuring ourselves to get or stay thin also influences how we view our kids and their bodies. We’re told by the media, and often our healthcare providers, that obesity is detrimental to health. As a result, we may find ourselves restricting what or how much our children eat to try and control their weight. For our children, this creates an atmosphere of stress around food and shame about their bodies, which can lead to lifelong struggles with their weight and body image. This increases their risk of developing an eating disorder, which are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that can affect every system in the body, according to NEDA.
So, how can we raise healthy, confident kids who grow into the right body for them? Luckily, there are things we can do to intentionally cultivate body positivity and respect among our children and ourselves, too!
Take stress off the menu at meal and snack times
Ellyn Satter, registered dietitian, family therapist, and internationally recognized expert on feeding kids, created the Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR) to help children become competent eaters. sDOR outlines clear roles for both parents and children at mealtimes. Parents are responsible for what is served, along with when and where the meal or snack will take place. Children are responsible for what and how much they choose to eat out of what is offered. Practicing the sDOR has many benefits, including reducing power struggles at mealtimes, which helps improve the relationship between kids and parents.
We are more open to trying new things when they aren’t being forced on us, and kids are no exception. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but removing stress from mealtimes allows kids to practice listening to their internal cues about what and how much to eat – a skill many of us struggle to tap into because of diet culture.
Let go of trying to control the size or shape of your child’s body
Trust that your child will grow into the body that is right for them – even if it isn’t your envisioned body. Body shape and size are primarily genetic, so chances are high that their body will be similar to yours. Therefore, negative comments we make about our bodies can feel personal to our kids as they notice these similarities. Even well-intended body commentary can be harmful; compliments may feel like comparison, while unsolicited advice feels like judgment. Instead, focus on praising and encouraging the things kids can control, like working hard to learn a new skill or befriending a new kid at school. Most importantly, never put your child on a diet. According to NEDA, 62% of teen girls and 29% of teen boys are trying to lose weight, and 14 and 15-year-olds who reported participating in even moderate dieting were five times more likely than their non-dieting peers to develop an eating disorder.
Talk to your child about unrealistic body standards
According to NEDA, discussing unrealistic body standards and the pressures to conform can help women and girls feel more positive about their bodies. Talk to your children about how body weight and size do not define who they are as people. Be sure they know you love them unconditionally and that they can come to you with any worries about food or their bodies. NEDA recommends keeping a list of the top 10 things we like about ourselves to help cultivate body positivity, which parents can help kids create and update as they grow.
Prioritize a healthy relationship with your own body
If we want to teach our kids to feel good about their bodies, an important step is learning to feel good (or at least neutral) about our own. This means extending grace and compassion to ourselves for perceived imperfections. We deserve to live a life that fulfills us instead of wasting time agonizing over our pants size. If we want to give our kids a fighting chance at accepting their bodies, we must show them that we are willing to accept our own.
Put an end to negative self-talk
Identify times when you are participating in negative self-talk, either in your head or out loud, and make a conscious effort to stop. Constantly viewing ourselves through a lens of self-criticism fuels the cycle of shame that keeps us running back to dieting. Can you imagine what would happen to the diet industry’s sales if we all woke up one morning and decided to like ourselves?
Model how to care for the body you have
It’s essential to prioritize our health, but we can take care of our bodies and set goals for ourselves in ways that don’t involve the scale. Let’s eat fruits and vegetables that we like because we know they provide vitamins and minerals that are good for us. Let’s show our kids that it’s possible to move your body in ways you enjoy as a way to care for your body rather than as punishment for enjoying food.
Improving our relationship with our own body won’t happen overnight, especially if we’ve spent a good portion of our lives trying to change our bodies to conform to societal expectations. But can you picture its profound effect on the next generation if we decided that diet culture ended with us?
Lita Chatham is a mom and registered dietitian and nutritionist with 10 years of experience. She believes that eliminating blame, shame, and guilt in relation to body size and weight is the first step in ensuring future generations develop healthy relationships with food and their bodies.