In doing your job as a parent, the words you choose make a difference. What your kids learn in the years in your home will be their idea of how the world works, maybe forever. With regard to their forming body image, what messages do your kids get about bodies from living under your roof? Your words matter quite a bit; they contain explicit and implicit messages.
All people who battle with body hatred and eating problems, have a story from childhood featuring an insensitive family member who reflected the their body back to them in a negative way. Words matter quite a bit from these stories, and body-comments from childhood seem to stick well into adulthood.
The words used in your home become the language your children learn to speak, because that’s what’s spoken to them. These words are like the wallpaper in the background of a child’s mind. This room to the right represents your daughter's mind -– what she could be thinking and what she believes from the messages she hears. (TRIVIA: Do you recognize this room to the right -- email me if you do!)
I’ve complied a bunch of comments that are typical from stories of people who dislike their bodies. These stories are loaded with explicit and implicit messages. An implicit message is the lesson the child receives from from another person's words or behavior. This lesson may not have been intended by the speaker; parents often miss this part -- the view from inside their child's mind. In these stories:
- There are lots and lots of fathers and mothers who tell their kids that they are putting on weight, or worse, getting fat – these are damaging explicit messages,
- There are fathers who comment on hot actresses on TV or large-bodied woman walking down the street – the implicit message to daughters and sons is that women exist to look good for men,
- There are lots of brothers or sisters who tease their sibling about their body size – which is bullying (there is a whole body of research on the psychological effects of teasing -- teasing about body size is one of most damaging kinds),
- There’s the brother who, with his friends, comment on the hot girls at school - giving his sister the implicit message that she'd need to look like these girls to have boys like her,
- There are lots of parents who call themselves fat or speak about their own body like it’s a thing or a bunch of parts – the implicit message to the kids could be that it is okay to hate your body or see yourself as a compilation of pieces,
The snapshot on the right could be the inside of your daughter’s mind from hearing lots of negative body talk. You are looking at a rendering of the invisible, deeply-held, internal thoughts that form negative body image.
Ban the Body Bashing
The best advice learned from these stories and the research is: Don't participate in body bashing. Be a role model for your kids when you have an opportunity to Ban the Body Bashing:
- Don’t make comments about other people’s bodies or attractiveness
- Don’t call anyone fat
- Don’t call yourself fat
- Don’t make self-hating comments about your body
- Don’t treat your body as a thing or group of things that need fixing. That is self objectifying – you are a person with so much more to you
- Don’t measure another person’s worth by her weight or size
- Don’t comment about your child's weight or body size ever
Research by Eric Stice at the University of Oregon suggests that you only need to engage in body bashing for 3-5 minutes before you feel measurably worse about your body. Notice when you hear body bashing. Notice when you indulge in body bashing. And notice when it is going on in your head, in your own thoughts.
What should we say?
So what language should we make important in our homes if we shouldn’t focus so much on bodies or appearance as a topic of conversation? Focus attention on real qualities that you hope your kids will have before they head out into the world. Highlight that being hardworking, kind, and generous matter. These are things your kids can control in their lives. Your focus on these traits gives your chidren an opportunity to learn to value these qualities in themselves.
With regard to bodies, focus on the positive . . .
When you speak about bodies, call out the positive. Negative body image is at its most basic: the negative thoughts you hold about your own body. If you could magically switch your thoughts topositive body thoughts, the costs associated with negative body image -- depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of self-care, and eating disorders -- would evaporate.
This sounds simple, but as we know these thoughts are deeply held beliefs, accumulated throughout your lifetime. These thoughts are not easily accessible; they are often unconscious. That's why it's important to think about the beliefs your kids are forming from living with you as early on as possible.
Your body, yourself
To help shape your kids' body beliefs, steer away from them seeing their body as a thing for others to evaluate. That's a recipe for lifetime world of hurt. If they are to ever feel good about their body – genuinely, sustainably good – those feelings needs to come from inside of them. Renee Engeln author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, recommends not giving many appearance-related compliments. We don't want them to become dependent on others' evaluations to feel good about their appearance.
We can strive to downplay appearance in our homes, as Renee Engeln advises. But, when appearance does come up, model seeing the positives in your own appearance for your child.You can mention when you think your arms look strong or your hair looks good. My husband thinks it sounds strange to give yourself the occasional appearance compliment out loud. But, if you think about it, it doesn't sound strange in our culture to insult yourself out loud. We say all the time, "I hate my hair," or "My butt looks fat in these pants." If we get used to looking for the positives in our own appearance from time to time, our kids will learn to do this for themselves.
Your body as a place from which to live your life
You want your kids to think of their body as a vehicle to serve their own needs. Young children do this innately, thinking of their bodies as vessels that help them run, play, eat, and think. So focus on what your body does for you by showing gratitude. Mention when you make it through a tough yoga class or swim in the lake.
Also, notice and be grateful for what makes your body feel good. It could be sitting in the sun or dancing. This keeps them in touch with how their body feels.
Switch to glass-half-full thoughts about your body and yourself to model to your kids.
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, 2017.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Rachel Simmons, Enough As She Is, 2018.
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.