Ask Dr. Bronwyn
Raising a Child with a Healthy Body Image
From Instagram to TikTok, it’s harder than ever to teach our children how to rise above the culture of comparison and love themselves and their bodies. Here, Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup offers her best advice for modeling a positive body image, expanding your child’s definition of beauty and raising kids to live happy and healthy lives.
Having a healthy body image means viewing your body with compassion and acceptance, and being grateful for what your body does, instead of fixated on how it looks. It’s clear from the research that having a negative body image leads to a wide range of negative outcomes, like lowered self-esteem and achievement, as well as depression and disordered eating.
But trying to convince a child that beauty doesn’t matter—when they’re constantly bombarded by media influencers pontificating on the merits of makeup, idealized notions of what beauty is from photoshopped ads, and trendy clothing brands that come only in XS/S sizes—can be a challenge.
Most parents assume they’ve got plenty of time before body preoccupation and pressures become relevant around the middle school years. But even preschoolers begin forming body images, albeit unconscious, by internalizing the messages they routinely receive about size, weight and appearance in their own home. So, since parents have tremendous influence over their child’s body image (negative or positive), it’s vital that they take stock of the factors comprising the climate in their own home, and do what they can to make sure that it’s one which will support their child’s positive body image throughout childhood and adolescence, including:
Acknowledge the significance of your own body image.
Boosting your child’s body image begins with improving your own. Of course, easier said than done. But if you have to, fake it.
Be careful what you say.
If you’re talking about how fat your arms look, or complaining about how badly you need Botox, there’s a good chance your child’s listening and will follow in your self-deprecating footsteps. Moms who are constantly worrying about weight are more likely to raise daughters who, by nursery school, show a similar preoccupation with food. If you want to be a good role model, you’ve got to stop all the negative self-talk (“I look like a sausage in this dress.”), rigid and limited diets (e.g., “Make sure the chef doesn’t use butter to cook the chicken, and that the dressing’s on the side, and no bacon or cheese or avocado either.”) and judgments about other people’s appearances (e.g., “She really put on some weight over the summer. Yikes.”).
Focus on things your child can control.
There are lots of things we don’t get to choose or change when it comes to our bodies (e.g., what color our eyes are, how tall we’ll be, and our size and shape). But being healthy is about much more than weight, and it’s important your child knows about all of the ingredients required for a healthy body like getting good sleep, eating a variety of nourishing foods, and finding ways to be active. When you take care of your body, your body shape and size will be exactly the way it’s supposed to be.
Expect everyone in the family to get exercise and help your child find a sport or physical activity she likes so she associates exercise with feeling good, instead of losing weight. Be a good role model by doing active things together as a family (e.g., weekend bike rides) and making it obvious that exercise for you is essential to well-being (e.g., “I’m going for a run and will come back ready for a great day!”).
Notice the beauty of all types of bodies.
Start talking to your child about the fact that bodies come in many different shapes, shades and sizes when she’s very young. Point out the many ways different people are beautiful, as well as the fact that beauty can be seen in the way someone acts, behaves and thinks.
Compliment with caution.
When girls are constantly told how cute they are or how pretty they’ve gotten, with little attention to anything else about them, they learn not only that appearance matters, but that it matters more than any of their other qualities. Of course, it’s okay that you can’t help telling your child how absolutely scrumptious you find her, or assuring her that of course you think she’s beautiful, if she asks. But make sure to send a different message about the things you hold in high regard by asking your child what she’s learning in school, or about the book she’s reading. Notice when she works really hard on something, or when she doesn’t give up. Mention how proud you are of her that she included the new girl, or that she asked such interesting questions at dinner. Of course, do the same for your sons as well, although chances are, you probably already are.
Make sure it’s never about weight.
If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, it’s never a good idea to make her aware, or to start pushing her to try new exercise regimens and diets, which will only lead to the likelihood of negative self-views and eating issues. If you’re legitimately concerned about your child’s health and not just appearance, then frame healthy behavior as a fun family challenge. Come up with goals that encourage healthy behavior (e.g., push up contests, jump-rope-challenges) and get everyone in the family to be more conscious about making sure they’re eating a diverse range of foods that fuel their bodies, instead of ones that don’t.
Help your child find more meaningful interests.
The more time girls spend shopping for trendy clothes, watching make-up tutorials on YouTube and videoing themselves for TikTok, the less time they spend trying out other activities that might actually lead to more positive core values and interests. Whether it be joining a sports team, trying out for a play, or taking up a musical instrument, choosing a new activity where her self-esteem will get a boost from the process of mastering a new skill, will be valuable.
Raise a critical thinker.
Help your child become more media savvy by discussing things like airbrushing, computer alterations, cosmetic surgery, photoshopping and filters. But don’t spend too much time on examination, since social media research shows that spending considerable time perusing photos may backfire, since the focus is still on appearance.
At night, when you’re putting your child to bed, take a moment in the bedtime routine to express gratitude for how hard your body worked that day, and anything specific it might have done for you that you’re thankful for.