Standing naked in the gym locker room, I stared at the beige concrete wall behind the scale and told myself, “This is the last time; no more.” I found myself looking at the number and thinking of how many times I have stood here trying to will it to shift even just a fraction.
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Like so many other women, I’ve been addicted to the scale since I was a teenager. Whether the number was 125 or 205, I have defined my worth by these three digits for far too long.
Now that my 8-year-old daughter is reaching an age where she is becoming more aware of her body and the bodies of those around her, it is my job to teach her a different way of life.
She does not have to define her worth by a number on the scale.
But this is no easy feat. Like so many other parents, I must constantly balance what my daughter sees and hears with what is actually true.
Body Image Beliefs Are Formed Early
It’s difficult to give blanket advice regarding children and body image, which leaves many parents wondering how to handle these very sensitive and critical conversations.
Kids as young as preschool age are being exposed to messages about their bodies and weight via social media, video games, movies and television shows that are negative in nature and, in turn, are influencing how they think and feel about themselves.
The desire for thinness and an awareness of dieting have been found to emerge in girls as young as 5 and 6 years old, suggesting that early childhood is a critical period for parents to instill a healthy body image.
Negative comments about weight and body image at a young age are often internalized by girls. The effects of this type of criticism is long-lasting and can result in the development of unhealthy dieting habits, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, research shows.
A recent study published in the Journal of Eating and Weight Disorders explored the research behind weight and early childhood experiences. It found that parents who commented negatively on their daughter’s weight at a young age contributed to her being more dissatisfied with her body weight later in life.
All of this leaves parents asking one thing: How should they respond when their daughters bring up weight or body image? Wondering whether to acknowledge it, ignore it, correct it or agree with it can cause even the most seasoned of parents to second-guess themselves.
How Parents Can Help
As a secondary-school counselor serving students ages 12 to 18, I see the consequences of the messages that girls receive at a young age. Parents are often unaware of the potential impact their cursory words about their daughters’ weight can have.
Because of this, early intervention is critical. Parents who can correct the delivery of their message early on have a greater chance of raising a child with a positive body image.
So what’s a parent to do? First off, you can’t ignore your child’s comments. Parents are a child’s best source of information, so if she is expressing concerns about her weight, it is imperative that you pay attention.
It’s how parents address the comments and the type of attention they give that really matters. The following tips can help guide parents about issues related to their children’s weight and body image:
1. Live the message.
The most important thing a parent can do is be a role model. Kids will more often follow what their parents do rather than what they say. If you want your daughter to focus less on her body and more on how she feels, then you as the parent need to set a good example. This is something I make a conscious effort to do daily.
2. Watch your words.
Weight-related labels bother all of us, and kids are no exception. Avoid words like “obese,” “overweight,” “fat,” “skinny,” “thin,” etc. Instead talk about health, and say things like “being healthy is important” and “let’s talk about how being healthy makes you feel good.”
The first time my daughter said that her stomach is “fat” and jeans were “not made for her body,” I immediately reframed it and asked her a question about how she feels. I asked her, “How does it feel to have a body that is strong and unique to you?”
Focusing on overall health rather than weight is important for a child’s long-term well-being. A study in JAMA found that being labeled “too fat” in childhood is associated with significantly higher odds of being obese nearly a decade later.
3. Avoid long, drawn-out conversations, and keep lines of communication open.
If your daughter asks you if she’s fat, avoid having a long discussion about it. Remain calm while listening, and answer with compassion and empathy.
Respond with questions like: “Where did you get the idea that you are fat?” “Do you really think you’re fat, or did someone else make you feel this way?”
If you are concerned that your child is overweight or obese, respond by turning the focus on the family’s health: “As a family, we want to be healthy. So let’s work on this together.”
Interactions like this make it more likely that she’ll feel comfortable talking to you about this very sensitive topic in the future.
4. Cultivate a positive self-image.
Simple empowering statements can help children believe in themselves. I tell my daughter, “Your body was built for you; no one else. Be proud of what your muscles can and will do.” The message reminds her that the size of her body will not determine success in life, but her attitude and confidence will.
In addition, teach your daughter to see what truly matters. When you find your daughter looking in the mirror, say to her: “See yourself first with your mind and soul. Take that in. Believe it. Then you can look at the image you see.
As someone who has struggled with body-image issues most of my life, it is crucial that I raise my daughter in an environment in which body positivity is celebrated. And I never forget to always share with her the most important message of all: “If someone judges you by the way you look, it doesn’t define you — it defines them.”
What Do YOU Think?
How have you struggled with body image in the past? Did your childhood experiences influence how you feel about your body? If you're a parent, what have you heard from your children regarding body image? How do you try to teach them to love their bodies?