Motherhood

How can I help my child develop a healthy body image?

6 min read

October 2nd, 2020

We live in a society that makes it very difficult to achieve or maintain a healthy body image. Even if we do make a conscious effort to shield our children from potentially harmful and unhelpful diet, body and appearance talk within our own homes, external diet culture messaging does seep in – from the TV shows they watch (even the supposed “kid-friendly” ones!), advertising and social media, seemingly innocent appearance-related comments from friends and family, and even the conversations about the contents of their lunch boxes at school.

As a mum, I sadly found the discussion amongst my daughter’s friends at school about “good” and “bad” food started at an alarmingly early stage.  My earliest memory of her telling me that a classmate told her that “xyz makes you fat” dates back to when she was in Prep!

Our children are exposed to the “thin ideal” from a young age. Clinical psychologist Louise Adams, who specialises in disordered eating and body image, says: ‘Diet culture’s toxic ideas infect our children and are responsible for numerous psychological casualties. By the time kids are five years old, they have absorbed fatphobic ideas: they “know” that fat bodies are bad. Body image rates in the top four concerns for young people according to the latest youth survey. Eating disorder rates are skyrocketing.’

So what can we do as parents to foster a healthy body image in our children so they can grow up with a much broader view of what it means to be “healthy” and value themselves irrespective of how they look?

1. Celebrate, embrace and accept all body shapes and sizes

Speak kindly to your own body, especially when there are little people in earshot. A healthy body image doesn’t mean you always love or even like everything you see, but every body is deserving of respect. Always! Share why you are grateful for your body and encourage your children to do the same. This helps to teach them to relate to their body based on how it feels from the inside and all the amazing things it can do for them!

One of my favourite quotes from the inspiring team at Beauty Redefined is: ‘Your body is an instrument for your use, not an ornament to be admired.’

2. Educate yourself about diet culture

This is one of the single best things I have done for my own body image and, I hope, for my daughter’s too. Now my eyes are opened to the insidious and deep-seated beliefs I had subconsciously absorbed from diet culture over the course of my life. I now see it for what it is and can actively work on detaching my feelings of self worth from the way I look.

Intuitive eating and HAES (Health At Every Size)-aligned dietician and author, Christy Harrison, defines diet culture as: ‘a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others. It’s sexist, racist, and classist, yet this way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society that it can be hard to recognise.  It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness, and for some, it is all consuming.’

Find out more about Christy’s new book Anti-Diet here.

3. Be mindful of, and avoid harmful and unhelpful diet, body and appearance talk

Whether this is you verbalising how you feel about your own body or in conversation with others, this type of discussion does not improve body confidence. It is not realistic to eliminate these thoughts altogether, but when little ears are around, do your best to keep them as just that – thoughts.

It’s not unusual for these conversations to start amongst friends, sometimes in a joking fashion, and it can be difficult to challenge. But like many other adult conversations when the kids are around, this one is just as worthy of avoiding.

This can also extend to openly judging a person’s health or making assumptions about their eating and exercise habits based on their weight, shape or appearance.

4. Normalise all body types, shapes and sizes and keep body comments neutral

When there’s a lack of body diversity around us, particularly in the media we consume, our view of what bodies should look like becomes pretty narrow. It can be easy to feel like we don’t fit in and must be doing something wrong if our body shape and size doesn’t quite meet the “acceptable” body type we are so used to seeing.  The same concept applies to children.

In reality there are many different body shapes, sizes, colours, and abilities, and no bodies are “bad” bodies.

Businesses and brands that use unhelpful appearance stereotypes or lack body diversity when it comes to advertising their products is not a new concept. As parents though, we can actively challenge this and hopefully encourage them to do better by not “following” or buying from them.

5. Avoid labelling food

Of course for the most part we want our kids to eat nutrient-dense food but using language that increases feelings of guilt or shame around eating or weight, such as “good”, “bad”, “junk”, “toxic” or even phrases like “full of sugar” can have a negative impact on our family’s relationship with food.

A relaxed and enjoyable approach to meal and snack times is better than a focus on always eating “good” or “clean” food.

The Sunny Side Up Nutrition podcast have an excellent 5-part series for parents about what it means to raise a competent eater. With 20-25 minute episodes, this series is broken down into bite-sized chunks (no pun intended!)

6. Adopt a zero tolerance for weight and appearance teasing, shaming and bullying

This may seem an obvious one but it can be so easy for weight related “jokes” and comments to become common place in the day to day chatter at school (in person or online), between siblings and even within the broader family environment.

And don’t forget Mumma, this zero tolerance policy should extend also extend to yourself!

Article references and further resources

Butterfly Foundation – support for eating disorders and body image issues

Protecting Our Kids from Diet Culture by Louise Adams. Includes links to her online program, UNTRAPPED, for women with eating and body weight concerns.

I follow a range of wonderful anti-diet culture and body positive accounts on instagram and you can find many of them, including Beauty Redefined, on the @myfitmumma profile under the two Diet Culture highlights.

Sheridan runs My Fit Mumma in Hobart, Tasmania. To find out more about her and get in touch, click here.

You can also find her on Instagram.

How can I help my child develop a healthy body image?

We live in a society that makes it very difficult to achieve or maintain a healthy body image. Even if we do make a conscious effort to shield our children from potentially harmful and unhelpful diet, body and appearance talk within our own homes, external diet culture messaging does seep in – from the TV shows they watch (even the supposed “kid-friendly” ones!), advertising and social media, seemingly innocent appearance-related comments from friends and family, and even the conversations about the contents of their lunch boxes at school.

As a mum, I sadly found the discussion amongst my daughter’s friends at school about “good” and “bad” food started at an alarmingly early stage.  My earliest memory of her telling me that a classmate told her that “xyz makes you fat” dates back to when she was in Prep!

Our children are exposed to the “thin ideal” from a young age. Clinical psychologist Louise Adams, who specialises in disordered eating and body image, says: ‘Diet culture’s toxic ideas infect our children and are responsible for numerous psychological casualties. By the time kids are five years old, they have absorbed fatphobic ideas: they “know” that fat bodies are bad. Body image rates in the top four concerns for young people according to the latest youth survey. Eating disorder rates are skyrocketing.’

So what can we do as parents to foster a healthy body image in our children so they can grow up with a much broader view of what it means to be “healthy” and value themselves irrespective of how they look?

1. Celebrate, embrace and accept all body shapes and sizes

Speak kindly to your own body, especially when there are little people in earshot. A healthy body image doesn’t mean you always love or even like everything you see, but every body is deserving of respect. Always! Share why you are grateful for your body and encourage your children to do the same. This helps to teach them to relate to their body based on how it feels from the inside and all the amazing things it can do for them!

One of my favourite quotes from the inspiring team at Beauty Redefined is: ‘Your body is an instrument for your use, not an ornament to be admired.’

2. Educate yourself about diet culture

This is one of the single best things I have done for my own body image and, I hope, for my daughter’s too. Now my eyes are opened to the insidious and deep-seated beliefs I had subconsciously absorbed from diet culture over the course of my life. I now see it for what it is and can actively work on detaching my feelings of self worth from the way I look.

Intuitive eating and HAES (Health At Every Size)-aligned dietician and author, Christy Harrison, defines diet culture as: ‘a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others. It’s sexist, racist, and classist, yet this way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society that it can be hard to recognise.  It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness, and for some, it is all consuming.’

Find out more about Christy’s new book Anti-Diet here.

3. Be mindful of, and avoid harmful and unhelpful diet, body and appearance talk

Whether this is you verbalising how you feel about your own body or in conversation with others, this type of discussion does not improve body confidence. It is not realistic to eliminate these thoughts altogether, but when little ears are around, do your best to keep them as just that – thoughts.

It’s not unusual for these conversations to start amongst friends, sometimes in a joking fashion, and it can be difficult to challenge. But like many other adult conversations when the kids are around, this one is just as worthy of avoiding.

This can also extend to openly judging a person’s health or making assumptions about their eating and exercise habits based on their weight, shape or appearance.

4. Normalise all body types, shapes and sizes and keep body comments neutral

When there’s a lack of body diversity around us, particularly in the media we consume, our view of what bodies should look like becomes pretty narrow. It can be easy to feel like we don’t fit in and must be doing something wrong if our body shape and size doesn’t quite meet the “acceptable” body type we are so used to seeing.  The same concept applies to children.

In reality there are many different body shapes, sizes, colours, and abilities, and no bodies are “bad” bodies.

Businesses and brands that use unhelpful appearance stereotypes or lack body diversity when it comes to advertising their products is not a new concept. As parents though, we can actively challenge this and hopefully encourage them to do better by not “following” or buying from them.

5. Avoid labelling food

Of course for the most part we want our kids to eat nutrient-dense food but using language that increases feelings of guilt or shame around eating or weight, such as “good”, “bad”, “junk”, “toxic” or even phrases like “full of sugar” can have a negative impact on our family’s relationship with food.

A relaxed and enjoyable approach to meal and snack times is better than a focus on always eating “good” or “clean” food.

The Sunny Side Up Nutrition podcast have an excellent 5-part series for parents about what it means to raise a competent eater. With 20-25 minute episodes, this series is broken down into bite-sized chunks (no pun intended!)

6. Adopt a zero tolerance for weight and appearance teasing, shaming and bullying

This may seem an obvious one but it can be so easy for weight related “jokes” and comments to become common place in the day to day chatter at school (in person or online), between siblings and even within the broader family environment.

And don’t forget Mumma, this zero tolerance policy should extend also extend to yourself!

Article references and further resources

Butterfly Foundation – support for eating disorders and body image issues

Protecting Our Kids from Diet Culture by Louise Adams. Includes links to her online program, UNTRAPPED, for women with eating and body weight concerns.

I follow a range of wonderful anti-diet culture and body positive accounts on instagram and you can find many of them, including Beauty Redefined, on the @myfitmumma profile under the two Diet Culture highlights.

Sheridan runs My Fit Mumma in Hobart, Tasmania. To find out more about her and get in touch, click here.

You can also find her on Instagram.

Article by

My Fit Mumma