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How to help children feel more confident about their body image

Everywhere we look we are bombarded with weight shaming messages extolling ideals of thinness such as the latest fad diet promising ‘fat blasting secrets’. There is a constant stream of unrealistic images in the media.  It is extremely hard to ignore this and we automatically compare ourselves unfavourably with what we see.  Recent research has highlighted how weight stigma, particularly in children, not only leads to weight gain but has profound effects on their mental health.

This issue of body dissatisfaction has become so intense that one study found that over half of female university students would prefer to be run over by a truck rather than be fat.  Yet an escalating obesity epidemic has meant that more people are falling short of their ideal which is leading to a range of physical and mental health issues such as eating disorders and low self-esteem.  

Children are picking up these messages at a very young age.  Studies have found that nearly half of girls aged 3-6 years old were concerned about being fat; a third of 5-year-old girls were restricting their diet in order to remain slim. 

Parents can play a really important role in redressing the balance, so that children value their attributes more than their appearance and reject the fat shaming messages that are so pervasive.  Yet many parents have themselves spent a lifetime battling with their weight, a habit that depletes them and stops them living life to the full.  They are so trapped by the dieting culture that their children are picking up the message that unless they are losing weight, they won’t be a ‘good’ person.

What Can Parents Do?

Do practice what you preach

You are a big influence on your children’s lives and if you are content with your body, irrespective of size, your child will learn that feeling good is not weight dependent.

Don’t talk about your child’s weight

Numerous studies suggest that encouraging children to diet or lose weight, even in a well-meaning way lowers their self-esteem and promotes disordered eating.  Furthermore, dieting to lose weight rarely works in the long-term; recent research found that more than 99% of obese people who had lost weight, regained it within a 10-year period.

Do talk about good health

You want your child to be healthy, and this doesn’t rely on weight.  Good health comes in all shapes and sizes and many doctors now favour using such measures as waist circumference, blood pressure and cholesterol rather than weight to determine health risk.  If you are worried about your child’s well-being then promote healthy behaviours that can be fun for all the family such as going for a bike ride or going for a walk. 

Don’t label foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’

This reinforces the notion that you are ‘bad’ for wanting to eat those foods.  Additionally, too much emphasis on ‘bad’ foods to avoid can make the child feel deprived and more likely to want to eat those foods.

Do talk about food in a positive way

Teach children how to have a healthy relationship with food by listening to their own body cues for when they are hungry and when they feel full.  Explain the difference between nutritious foods that are essential for growth and development and less healthy foods that taste nice.   

Don’t compliment people about their weight loss

Every time you compliment someone about their weight loss, you imply that it is appropriate to make comments about people’s size and that ‘thin’ is good and ‘fat’ is bad.  It  also suggests that their previous size was socially unacceptable which can make it even harder if they regain the weight.

Do talk about the dangers of weight stigma

Research suggests that while society has become less racist and homophobic, it has also become more discriminating regarding weight.  There is a clear need for social change and we can’t totally protect our children from this kind of fat shaming.  However, by instilling in them a core belief that values body acceptance they will be more resilient when dealing with this kind of stigma and more caring and sensitive to others who are subjected to such abuse. 

Ironically when people stop worrying about their weight, they are less likely to gain weight.  A group of female university students participated in a programme to teach body positivity and reject pressures to be slim.  Two years later the students in the study hadn’t gained as much weight as those who had not participated.  These students were less concerned about being thin, and were therefore less likely to comfort eat and engage in unhealthy weight loss habits that tend to fail. 

It can be very easy for parents, especially if they think their child has a weight issue to say things like ‘do you really need that extra helping’ or ‘you would look so much better if you lost a few pounds’.  Parents intentions may be good but shaming your children, only makes them feel worse and is reinforcing the idea that you need to be a certain size to be successful in life.

The reality is that despite parents doing their best to help their children to feel more confident about their bodies, it may still be hard for them to navigate a society with such deeply embedded ideals of thinness.  However, by laying down the foundation stones of body acceptance in their early years, children will not only feel more positive about themselves and others, but also help to eradicate weight stigma.

By Tracey Bennett

Healthy Eating Matters