How to Help Your Child Have a Healthy Body Image
By Dena Cabrera, PsyD, CEDS
“Every time a woman passes a mirror and criticizes herself, there’s a girl watching.” – Gloria Steinem
How do we as parents live in a way that inspires beauty, confidence, and healthy body image? How do we keep our sons and daughters from making the same mistakes or continue to carry the lies that caused us to question ourselves and our own bodies? Helping your child have a healthy body image is a huge quest but not impossible. It begins with you.
Your Children are watching
It’s true, they are watching. This is how they learn about the world, about themselves, about connections and relationships. This always being watched creates a lot of pressure but in many ways an opportunity. The healthy body image starts with us, as parents. Many habits modeled by mothers and fathers, such as dieting, body dissatisfaction, self-criticism, disordered relationships with food, weight, and physical activity encourage children to become sensitive about their own weight and body image. Mothers and fathers who criticize and degrade their own bodies subject their children to similar messages about themselves, spoken or unspoken. A recent study spanning a period of ten years showed that ten-year-old children of mothers with disordered eating were more likely to exhibit dietary restraint and overvalued ideas of weight/shape in how they evaluated themselves. Dr. Neumark-Sztainer, author of I’m Like, So Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World, writes, “Research studies have shown a strong association between the more extreme weight control behaviors in parents and similar behaviors in their teens…Many of the eating disorder professionals I’ve interviewed have told me that, if there’s one piece of advice for parents they’d like to see in this book, it’s ‘Don’t Diet. Model behaviors you want your children to adopt.’” (2)
It’s important to model positive self-esteem, healthy confidence, and complimentary praise of self and others. Oftentimes, we get swept into a world of judgment and comparison which only leads to measuring ourselves in a negative way. Theodore Roosevelt said that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Instead of criticizing yourself or others in front of your kids, marvel humbly over the use of your legs, the fact that you have ability to move, and the use of your five senses. Notice when loved ones make an effort to look nice; however, compliment on a child’s spirit, laughter, or humor. It’s not easy modeling joy and confidence while caring for self and others, but the more you demonstrate positive body image and confidence, the more you’ll begin to feel it, too. The payoff is that you will help shape the future of your children and how they live in their bodies.
Protect Their Eyes
Media imaging and advertising, social media, and internet can wreak havoc on self-image, self-esteem, and body image. The whole goal of advertising is to diminish and devalue us as women and men in an effort to sell products that will claim to ultimately provide us with happiness. Teens are especially vulnerable to these messages and thus are oftentimes the targeted population. We have to guard our children’s minds and protect their eyes. There are numerous dangerous sites that promote dieting, starvation tips, self-harm, and suicide. Also, magazines continually show photoshopped models glamorizing an ideal beauty and shape impossible to obtain. Ditch the magazines and limit and monitor computer time and phone activity. It’s important that as parents we discuss the power and dangers of the media, magazines, and internet. Providing awareness and education will begin to give our teens tools to counteract messages and a reality that these are false images and no one is perfect. It will be countercultural to the messages that permeate our society – in that, if we tried hard enough, worked out long enough, deprived ourselves just enough, we could have the perfect body. However, the goal is to challenge and diffuse these messages and replace them with healthy and positive messages.
Nurturing and Fostering Identity
Ideally, our sons and daughters will develop normally, without interference. The goal is to help them establish their identity, separate from their weight, size, shape, and appearance. We want them to develop a sense of self and identity based on substance and heart. This is difficult given we live in a culture where “image is everything.” However, helping your children develop a solid understanding of self is crucial in fostering your children’s identity and thus body image. And it starts with being genuine with others, real with your heart, and open with your mind. It’s about encouraging self-discovery, uniqueness, and individuality in our children and bridging those traits with strong values and morals. Yet to say that looks are not important would be invalidating and simply wrong, both for ourselves and for our children. The problem is when our bodies and our looks are the only thing that define us. We need to balance our focus on looks with redeeming qualities, such as “I love how thoughtful you are,” or “you have a wonderful laugh.” Kathy Kater, a psychotherapist and author, states in her book, Real Kids Come in All Sizes, “Looks are one part of who we are. But the more we remember all the different parts of who we are, the stronger we will be.” (3)
Building overall self-esteem is another ingredient to building healthy body image. Promote and teach your children to develop healthy relationships with friends and chose appropriate and healthy role models. Part of the journey to self-esteem is developing special talents and accepting our weaknesses. Learning to self-sooth and balance are parts of this step. Teaching our children (and ourselves) to become real by letting go and embracing the plan that was designed for you are additional pieces. Being real is about looking in the mirror and liking what you see, focusing on the features you admire about yourself, and leaving the rest aside. Becoming real means looking at the things in your life that enrich you and your family. Children remember the times of laughing, connecting, and being. Not the stuff. The relationship between love and worth has never been more beautifully illustrated than in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams:
“What is real?” the Rabbit asked the Skin Horse.
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (4)
It’s not about the mom or dad standing in the mirror. It’s about thousands of moms and dads. As women and men, we are all connected – teaching our children that their lives matter. Their value is worth more than you can imagine and the lives you’re touching are more than you’ll ever know. All of this is about helping your child not only have a healthy body image but be a healthy person.
About the author –
Dr. Dena Cabrera is a licensed psychologist and serves as the executive clinical director for Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders in Arizona. She manages the day-to-day programs for all levels of care, and is involved in program development, staff training, and supervision throughout the Rosewood system. Dr. Cabrera is the co-author of The Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty and Life After Pregnancy. She presents nationally and internationally on mental health issues.
(1) Cabrera, D. & Wierenga, E.T. (2013). Mom in the Mirror: Body image, beauty and life after pregnancy. Rowman & Littlefield: Maryland.
(2) Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m Like, So Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World. New York: Guildford Press.
(3) Kater, K (2004). Real Kids Come in All Sizes: 10 Essential Lessons to Build Your Child’s Body Esteem. New York: Broadway.
(4) Williams, M. (1922). The Velveteen Rabbit. New York: George H. Doran Co.