Article at a Glance
It is hard not to cringe when you hear a group of eight-year-olds complain about how fat they are. Children become aware of physical appearances at a very, very young age and unfortunately a lot of the messages they receive are not healthy.
The preoccupation with appearance gets even stronger as we get closer to the preteen and teen years. During puberty our bodies go through a lot of changes and we become much more aware of our bodies. There is also more pressure to attract the opposite sex or to fit in with others.
It is normal for teens to care more about how they look—it is even healthy. As children become more aware of their bodies they are more likely to practice good hygiene. Many parents have sighed in relief when their teenage son finally decides that showering is important.
A healthy body image doesn’t mean that you don’t care about how you look, but it does mean that you don’t fixate on your imperfections. People with a healthy body image don’t spend a lot of time obsessing with how they look. They feel comfortable in their own skin and feel good about their appearance most days. They know that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and appreciate their own natural body shape. They understand that how somebody looks has very little to do with their worth.
An unhealthy body image means that we feel ashamed, awkward, or anxious about our bodies. We may have a distorted perception of how we look, seeing imperfections that others don’t notice. Often people with a negative body image will feel like their body shape is a sign of failure or that it is an indication of their worth. When people suffer from a negative body image, it can put them at risk for things like depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. People who feel badly about their bodies are more likely to resort to extreme methods to control their size and weight like exercise compulsion, steroid use, drugs, and smoking.
A healthy body image not only helps children navigate puberty and develop healthy habits, it also changes the way they treat others. Knowing that there is much more to them than how they look will help them treat others with the same respect.
Our body image is shaped by cultural messages, our experiences, and our interactions with others. Whether you have daughters or sons, they will both need help. Although boys aren’t as vocal about problems, it doesn’t mean they don’t have them. Below are some tips on how to help your children develop a healthy body image.
Your children learn a lot from your example. If you spend a lot of time criticizing your body, don’t be surprised if your children pick up the same habit. Instead focus on your strengths and show your children how to love their bodies. Rather than fixating on your weight or body shape, place your focus on modeling healthy habits like being active, limiting TV time, and eating healthy.
Your children are probably already painfully aware of their physical flaws. Even good-natured teasing about a physical characteristic can be hurtful. Instead focus on all the wonderful things your child’s body can do. Praise your children for being good with their hands or point out how wonderful it feels to dance around the room.
Teach your children to identify negative “self-talk” and to instead focus on the things they love about themselves. We learn to love our bodies when we recognize the many wonderful things they can do.
While it is important to address growing rates of obesity and to help children be healthier, we have to be careful how we do it. Sometimes we unintentionally send the message that being fat is bad—since you can’t stop being fat, you must be bad.
If your child is suffering from a weight problem, resist the urge to nag, remind, bribe, or hint. Pressuring your children about how they look or what they eat can damage family relationships and their body image. Instead focus on how the whole family can make healthier lifestyle choices so that children don’t feel singled out.
Studies show that people are more successful when they focus on changes in activity and diet without reference to weight. We need to help our children make healthy choices so they can be healthy, not to obtain a certain physical ideal. (Read More)
Our children are bombarded with nonstop media messages. They need to learn how to filter through all these messages and how to keep things in perspective. Teach your children how to look critically at media content and spot underlying objectives. Even young children can learn to identify marketing ploys and to assess the messages they are receiving about self-image and other values. Advertising’s goal is to make us feel like we lack something so that they can sell us something to fix it. By recognizing how an ad is trying to make us feel, we can stop it from making us feel bad about ourselves.
Teaching children how the media can alter images and distort perceptions can also help children develop healthier attitudes about their own worth. They need to know that the ideal that they are being presented isn’t even realistic, no matter how hard they work or how much self-control they have. Not fitting the ideal doesn’t mean that you have failed; it only means that you are human like everybody else.
Find a physical activity that your child enjoys, whether it is running, walking, biking, swimming, hiking, fencing, dancing, etc. Sometimes it can take awhile to find a good fit, but don’t give up. Being more active helps us feel better about ourselves, even if we aren’t necessarily athletic. Sometimes we feel like we have to excel at something in order to do it, but that isn’t true. You don’t have to be a great runner to feel good afterward running. Moving makes us feel good and leaves us feeling energized and confident. When we are physically active our bodies feel good and we learn to associate those positive feelings with our bodies.
Especially during the teen years, your child’s friends are going to have a tremendous impact on how your child feels and thinks. When friends put a lot of importance on appearance, your child is likely to as well. If you see that your child’s friends are having a negative impact, look into ways that your child can meet other peers who might have a broader and more mature perspective on self-worth. Sport teams or special interest clubs can be a great place for this. Children who excel at other things are less likely to focus as much time on criticizing their appearance.
Sometimes our fixation on our bodies comes from feeling out of control elsewhere in our lives. That is why makeover shows are so successful—they make it look so easy. By improving our physical appearance we can be reborn into more confident, desirable, and successful people.
The belief that we can fix complicated problems by dieting or exercising is tempting. It makes us feel like we can be in control of our lives. But the reality is that the ideal body isn’t attainable, no matter how much we diet or exercise. It is a terrible trap to get stuck in. Not only do you fail to meet your physical goals, but you aren’t fixing the real problem either.
Help your children understand that their physical appearance doesn’t change who they are. Even beautiful people can be unhappy. If we are unhappy or struggling, we need to address our problems in healthy and productive ways.
How you feel about yourself should not be tied to how you compare with others. If we are always looking at what others have, we will never appreciate our own strengths. Instead recognize your body type and learn to embrace it.
Size discrimination is as unfair as any other form of discrimination. Our body type does not reflect on who we are. Help your children find good role models who have learned how to push back against these types of stereotypes.
Spending too much time in front of the mirror can reinforce a negative body image. Fixating on our perceived flaws only magnifies them. Instead get your children involved with things that help develop their other characteristics. When parents praise children for attributes that aren’t based on looks, it helps children develop a sense of self that isn’t dependent on their appearance. This is especially important for fathers with daughters, as they seem to have a greater impact on their daughter’s emerging identity.