I remember standing in front of the mirror when I was ten. I looked at my face, my head, my hair. I thought to myself, “Such a pretty face. Too bad it doesn't belong on this body.” I looked at my tall, thin sisters and my petite, trim mother. I didn't fit. Older relatives used to pull me aside and tell me not to worry. “Someday, you'll be prettier than your sisters. Someday, you'll be the prettiest one.” I got all the stories about childhood ugly ducklings and not-so-pretty people that were oh-so-clever. Although I found such sentiments mildly comforting about the future, it did nothing to ease the anxiety I had about the present. After all, if I'm being told that someday I'll be pretty, someday I'll be attractive, that just drives home the point that I wasn't acceptable already. It seemed my body was wrong and I was waiting for the day when it would be right. I was waiting to merely be acceptable.
Not long after, in a fit of sadness and uncertainty, I went to my mother and cried that I was fat. “You're not fat,” she assured me. “You're just big boned.” Bless her heart, she was trying so hard but even then I could hear the lie in her voice. “Oh, yeah? How many people do you know whose stomachs are bigger than their chests?” She replied that she knew lots of people that fit that description.
I was constantly sending out emotional feelers about my appearance as I grew up. I fretted about my body and if I was good enough. My views didn't start to shift until I was an adult. I thought there must be a better way to raise children with a healthy body image. Of course, there are certain actions a parent should be taking day-to-day, like encouraging enjoyable exercise and healthy eating habits. Beyond the physical, the emotional needs to be nurtured.
The first thing a parent must do when they want to teach their child to love their body is to model a healthy body image themselves. If a parent has anxiety about their body, a child picks up on that. Are you worried about your weight? Your child will notice. Concerned about your hair? Your child will notice. Worried about your breast size or muscle size or even the size of your feet? Your child will notice. Instead, focus on what you love about yourself. Make sure your child hears you talk about yourself and your body in a loving and thankful way.
Some children begin to feel the effects of body image problems in early childhood. In some cases, even preschoolers worry about their bodies. Even if a child never makes a peep about body worries early on, puberty can bring on new anxieties that weren't there before. At this point, a child may grow taller than their peers, put on a little extra weight in some places, and feel awkward. To make matters worse, the parent of a child going through puberty may also have a surge of anxiety about their child's changing body, which then feeds into the worries of the child.
Part of the problem of increased negative body image as a child ages is the so called “fat phobia” or “culture of thinness” that our anxiety has pushed into the spotlight. As much as 30% of children between the ages 10 and 14 are dieting at any time. To help children not fall into the trap of “fat phobia” and eating disorders, it is important that they have reality in mind. Make sure they know about the fakeness of magazine shoots and the health problems that come from starving to be a size zero. Help them understand that as too much extra weight can be medically unhealthy, so can being too thin.
The number one action a parent can take to help their children grow up with a positive body image is to model one. Be aware of the messages that you are sending not only about your own body, but about other people's bodies. I never heard my mother say one nasty thing about her own body, with the exception of wishing her hair was a little thicker. What I did hear, though, was her say nasty things about others. The messages you send will be written on your children's hearts.