A father makes a comment about a celebrity looking too plump in her evening gown. A mom remarks that she feels fat after eating a big meal. An older sister makes a funny observation about somebody in her class who is a ‘giant.’ While these are meant to be harmless comments, children personalize these statements and can develop a negative body image because they hear loved ones innocently criticize themselves and others.
As early as first grade, many girls become concerned with weight and appearance. Some start to restrict food intake and others begin to read food labels. By third grade, 30 percent of these young students have actively dieted. Further, body image not only is a female preoccupation. Preteen boys also experience stress as they compare their bodies to athletes and actors. Children are inundated with messages from the media, their family and their friends that lead many to think that their appearance is unacceptable.
A positive body image is one that is based in reality. The child accepts who he or she is, and generally is happy with how they look and feel. A negative image is an unrealistic perspective and the child believes they do not live up to the expectation of others, including parents and peers. Anyone—no matter their age—who continually maintains negative thoughts about their appearance is at risk for an eating disorder and/or other mental-health issues.
It is, however, part of human nature to have a personal opinion about one’s looks. It also is normal to like some parts of your body and dislike others. But how one feels often is influenced by the company they keep. Family and friends continuously convey comments about appearance from the day one is born. And parents have a bigger influence on their children’s personal perceptions than any other source.
While it may not seem like it, most kids pay attention to mom and dad. If you frequently talk about your weight, your thighs, as well as your demanding workout, your kids also will worry about their weight, their thighs and their exercise habits. If you constantly eat fat-free foods and skip meals to reduce calories, your children will develop these same unhealthy habits. Kids subconsciously mimic adult behaviors.
Fortunately, parents also can play a pivotal role in boosting self-perceptions. Emphasize to your children that there are many different body shapes and not one ideal size. Explain that weight gain, especially during the onset of adolescence, is a normal part of development.
Further, encourage health over weight worries by urging your children to actively play. The gym is great, but spending time outside with the neighborhood kids is better and more fun. Hip-hop dance class, team sports, or walking the dog gets the body moving. It does not matter what kids do, as long as they do something.
Kids receive mixed messages about what is attractive versus what is healthy. Unfortunately, no matter how much you discuss health and fitness, kids are still susceptible to outside influences, especially media messages. Teach your children to become media-savvy by discussing the images they see on the TV, in magazines, and on the Internet. It can be difficult for a maturing child to understand that their favorite Disney starlets and their thin model friends often achieve their glamorous appearance through unhealthy means or Photoshop touch-ups.
Despite a parent’s best efforts, many children, unfortunately, do worry about their body image. If your child is constantly focused on their physical appearance, excessively diets, or continually compares themselves to others, they may need professional support to understand how to live a healthy lifestyle. Sadly, a mother’s words of wisdom may not be enough to sooth a struggling child.
Research shows that active families who enjoy physical exercise raise children who have a better self-esteem than families who do not adopt this philosophy. Helping children develop healthy habits will send them down an emotionally prosperous path. Being fit does not mean being thin—and being thin does not mean being happy.