As a mother, you have the power to create a positive environment for your children, where everyone is respected, regardless of weight or body type. Whether you are raising daughters, sons or both, the first step in creating a positive body-image environment is to identify the attitudes, cultural beliefs and behaviors that may hurt your children’s perceptions of their bodies and appearances. Then, using these five techniques, you can create a home that will nurture your children’s self-esteem—and yours.
1. Love your body beyond weight, shape or size. Positive body images start with you. Your children take their emotional cues from you. If you are constantly criticizing your body or engaging in “fat talk” about yourself, your child may start mimicking your behavior. If you are constantly dieting, counting calories and preoccupied with weight gain, your child may learn to relate to food in unhealthy ways. It’s not only what you say about your body or how you treat your body that matters. Your feelings about your body and your beliefs about beauty, even if these remained secrets in your mind, will impact your child’s body image profoundly.
Tip: Don’t indulge in negative self-talk about your body, physical appearance or weight. Instead, give yourself time to reflect about your body image. How do you feel about your body? Find one thing to compliment. Are you comfortable in your own skin? Recognize your feelings without judging yourself. Then make a commitment to yourself and start loving your body unconditionally. Set aside five minutes every day to boost your body esteem. Close your eyes. Breathe in and breathe out slowly, feeling how the air occupies space inside your body. Smile from within and say: “I love my body unconditionally. I treat it with respect and kindness. I am beautiful.”
2. Protect your children against teasing and shaming. Your children need to feel loved unconditionally at home. If they’re ashamed about their weight or body shape, they will feel that they are not lovable the way they are. Be aware of the messages you send about their physical appearance (verbally and non-verbally). Are you conveying the message that they need to lose weight or look different? Are you constantly criticizing their hair or the way they talk? Negative comments about physical appearance can damage children’s self esteem, even when these remarks are only meant to be jokes.
Tip: Don’t allow anyone in your home to make negative comments or jokes about your child’s physical appearance or body. Instead, teach that home is a place where everyone is celebrated for who they are. Tell your children why they are special and unique. Encourage your children and spouse to do the same for each member of the family. If your child is being teased or bullied outside the home, address the matter promptly.
3. Help your children develop a healthy relationship with food. A healthy diet is important for your children’s health. But when it comes to helping your children develop a positive body image, healthy eating is much more than what kids eat or don’t eat, but how they relate to food.
In the name of health, parents can create conflict over food. They might force their children to eat what they don’t want or ban certain foods altogether for fear of weight gain. Neither strategy is effective. Sure, it’s a good start to wean your kids off sugary drinks, but our children need to recognize when they’re hungry and to stop eating when they’re full. If you provide plenty of healthy choices at each meal and allow your kids to choose how much they want to eat, they will learn to listen to the natural signals of their bodies.
Tip: Don’t categorize food as “bad” or “good.” Avoid tension and conflict at the dinner table. Instead, provide a peaceful setting at each meal and encourage everyone to enjoy the pleasure of eating. Periodically, have conversations with your children about how food helps the body to be healthier.
4. Encourage an active lifestyle for the whole family. If you help your children enjoy physical activities without the pressures of losing weight or being in shape, your children will learn to appreciate their bodies beyond physical appearance (a fundamental aspect of positive body image). Expose them to a variety of physical activities, like dancing, walking, swimming or playing a team sport. Pay attention to what each child enjoys the most, and then provide opportunities for that child to explore her/his favorite physical activities. You and your partner can get involved too!
Tip: Don’t avoid physical activities because these might call attention to your children’s weight or body shape. Don’t force them to exercise or play a sport either. Instead, encourage your children to express their uniqueness through their favorite physical activities.
5. Teach respect for all. Every day, your children receive hundreds of messages that say: “Thinner/lighter/straighter hair is better.” Challenge the stereotypical ideals by educating your children about the media. Discuss with them how the images on TV or in the movies depict unrealistic beauty standards. Talk about the prejudices that people suffer because of their size, color or weight. Teach them that these prejudices are wrong and that they should respect people, no matter their size, shape or weight.
Tip: Don’t overemphasize physical appearance in your conversations. Instead, model respect for all body types by valuing qualities that are not related to physical appearance.
May you have a home full of love and acceptance for all!