If you ask any plus-size adult about their childhood, chances are you’ll get stories of body image issues and/or complicated relationships with food, often brought up by close family members. We are trying to break the generational trauma by becoming better role models for our children as we have seen the impacts first hand.
We talked to some experts, doctors, and we’ve put together a list of tips for raising kids to be body positive, or at least body neutral. This can also be useful if you are a parent, close relative or even a friend of people who have children and are looking for some tips for yourself!
6 Tips for Raising Kids (and Yourself) in a Body-Positive Environment
1. Lead by example
Surely, we all have memories of our parents’ relationships with their own bodies. Whether it was negative self-talk, comments others made to them, or how they dressed to hide certain parts of their bodies. Children are like little sponges and absorb all the information around them!
We asked @thatfatdoctor, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, for his thoughts on how parental behavior affects children. Katelyn states, “Children learn about the world by watching their parents. If they see a parent looking at his body in the mirror, they learn to look at his body in the mirror. If a guardian is very focused on food, he will learn to judge himself as if food has morality and what he eats determines his self-esteem. It’s a slippery slope that can be easily prevented; instead, model love, tolerance, and acceptance.”
One of the best ways to raise them in a body-positive environment is to be mindful of the things you say about your own body. Even if there are parts of yourself that you are still working to love, put a positive spin on it! Recognize that all bodies are different and that is what creates beauty.
2. Talk about representation in the media
It’s important to talk to kids, especially teens, about the lack of diverse body representation on TV, movies, magazines, and on social media. If they don’t see themselves reflected in the media they consume, it’s important for them to know that it doesn’t mean their bodies aren’t normal.
Look out for body-positive focused influencers and positive role models for them – those who show off unfiltered diverse bodies and how beautiful they are!
Everything, images AND videos, can be edited to the point that the bodies no longer look real. Seeing airbrushed and predominantly thin bodies “flawless” only causes children to have unrealistic expectations about their own bodies. The assurance that their body is perfect for them is key.
3. Attitudes towards physical activities
This is a difficult concept for adults to grasp because it probably wasn’t how we grew up. Physical activity should be a celebration of movement, also known as joyful movement. It should be something you enjoy that makes you feel good. It should never be used as a punishment or presented solely as a way to lose weight or change your body shape.
Help them find something that works for them. Whether it’s sports, dancing, walking, yoga, skating, it’s important for kids to understand that physical activity can improve mood and sleep, it can be something done socially with friends or alone, and it can be fun!
4. Healthy relationships with food
There are many dietitians and nutritionists who specifically discuss this topic on social media because so many of us grew up with disordered relationships with food. Erica MS, RDN, who goes by @listennutrition on TikTok is one such dietitian. she claims “One way we can help children develop a positive relationship with food is to teach them that there are no ‘bad’ foods. Instead, we can teach them that foods contain different nutrients and make us feel different when we eat them.”
Erica continues, “When children think of food in moralistic terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ it can lead to guilt and disordered eating behaviors. We can spread the message that all foods provide our bodies with energy and it’s okay to incorporate fun, nutrient-dense foods into a healthy lifestyle; It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
Whether you grew up in a “clean your plate” household or lived with a “mama almond”, many of our eating habits as adults were formed in childhood. To combat this cycle, as Erica mentioned, it’s a good idea to discuss the importance of eating the necessary nutrients to maintain energy, but also to emphasize that it’s okay to stop eating when you’re full. Plates don’t need to be clean if half your plate fills you up.
Another tip that many dietitians and nutritionists recommend is to have dessert already on your plate. This helps children see different types of food equally. If sweets are something that is held back, that could turn into an adulthood where that is all they want to eat since they are now in control.
5. Limit body-focused comments
Part of growing up is learning about yourself, and unfortunately, some of that learning comes from outside sources, and it’s not always body-positive. Try to focus praise on internal attributes.
“You are so smart!”
“You are so kind!”
“Has a great sense humor!”
Self-esteem is very important during the formative years, and emphasizing those inner attributes or talents that a child has will go a long way toward developing them.
6. Correct misinformation
Our children have a lot of interaction with others outside of their family. Whether they are teachers, their friends, teammates, they will inevitably absorb information that is completely contrary to the Health at Every Size model.
If they come home saying things that differ from what you have taught them in the past, gently redirect them. For example, explain that healthy habits are important and that you can’t tell a person’s health from their weight.
The best thing you can do for the child is to express how much you love and accept him unconditionally. Helping them feel confident in themselves can be a lasting lesson in positive body image and even how they view others.