Friday, September 14, 2012

Cultivating a Healthy Body Image in Children

I hope this doesn't sound preachy or judgmental. It took me a few years of parenting to come up with these opinions, but I thought I'd share them because I think it is an important topic when it comes to parenting. I'd also like to open the door for other parents to chime on in on what rules or methods they use to help cultivate a positive body image in their children. 

Teach your children that they are in charge of their body.
My husband use to tickle my kids until they would squeal and say “No, no, no!” while giggling. He thought it was funny and I think they liked it, too, but it bothered me. 

I couldn’t put my finger on it until one day when I tried to explain it to him:
“I want our kids to feel like they are in charge of what happens to their body. If they are saying “no, no, no” and someone is still touching them, it takes away their power. I want them to know that when they say no, the other person should listen. I also want them to respect other peoples’ ownership of their bodies.”
My husband adjusted his tickle policy and all is well. 

I also don’t make my children hug or kiss anyone if they aren’t comfortable with it. These may seem like trivial small things, but children are very perceptive and can pick up on the subtlest of messages. Allowing them to have an opinion about their personal space helps empower them.  

Also, make sure you talk to your children about sexual abuse prevention. The "good touch, bad touch, secret touch" approach as discussed in Taylor's book review has made it easier for me to have that conversation with my kids. 

Watch your words.
What words do you use to compliment or uplift your child? When do you lavish them with attention?

This can be tough. My daughter is so stinkin’ cute, I have a hard time not constantly pointing out how cute and adorable I think she is. I have to consciously use words that focus on attributes that don’t correlate with physical appearance. I want her to know that while being cute or pretty might be fun, being smart or kind or loving is something even better to strive for.
Try not to talk about losing weight in front of your children or degrade your appearance where they can hear you. I know it is easy to start talking about your latest diet or body image hang ups when you are with your friends, but I don’t want my kids to have the words “Skinny” or “fat” in their vocabulary. I’d rather they use words like “healthy” and “Strong” when talking about their bodies. 

Avoid sexist remarks or gender stereotypes.
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s worth pointing out. Don’t use phrases like “he runs like a girl” or “you’re such a girl” to describe someone who is uncoordinated or emotional. I want my daughter to know that being a girl is awesome! I want her to know she can be an Olympic runner if she wants, and being a girl won’t ever hold her back from that. 

Maybe someday "runs like a girl"
will be considered a compliment.

Also, if your son loves the color purple, then embrace the fact that he hasn’t bought into the propaganda that only specific colors belong to each gender. I love the fact that Apollo will gladly wear his pink striped tie to church without complaint (he looks so handsome in his salmon-colored dress shirt, too). I’ll be sad if he ever refuses to wear it because "it’s a girl color". Whenever someone says pink is for girls we say “colors are for everyone.” My hope is that my children will learn that, just because the media is telling them how to dress or what to like, they don’t have to follow.

Be attentive to what kind of Media your child consumes/ Toys they play with.
There are subtle messages in even the most innocent-seeming shows. I recently let my daughter watch “The Little Mermaid.” It was a staple of mine growing up. I loved the songs and always thought Ariel was so beautiful. But, watching it as an adult I found things that bothered me. I tried to point out to Sunshine how silly it was of Ariel to change her body and sell her greatest talent just so she could get a boy to notice her. I told her that she should never change herself for anyone. I don’t know if she got it, but I’m hoping it at least made her think. I still let her watch it, but I won’t hesitate to point out the parts that I think are dumb. I am really thankful for how the role of females in movies has shifted. 

Instead of passively waiting to be rescued...

...or not even being conscious....

...the female characters in more modern movies are empowered. They rescue themselves and others. They go on adventures and make hard choices. 

One of my favorite blogs is Pigtail Pals. It explores the world of toys, clothing, and media that is geared towards our children. It’s really challenged me to think about what subtle messages my kids may be picking up on. 

Help your child choose a sport or talent to cultivate.

Here are just a few statistics pulled from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) website about female participation in sports: 
  • Research shows that girls who participate in some kind of sport experience higher than average levels of self-esteem and lower levels of depression. Sports participation is associated with reduced rates of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
  • Female athletes have better grades and higher graduation rates than non-athlete females
  • Young women who participated in sports were more likely to be engaged in volunteering, be registered to vote, feel comfortable making a public statement, follow the news, and boycott than young women who had not participated in sports. 
Another story which struck me recently was the story from Ken Robinson’s TED talk about education and creativity.  He mentions the story of Gillian Lynne, the famous choreographer of many musicals including Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

As a child, Gillian was disruptive and unable to sit still in class. She was diagnosed with a learning disorder, and may have been put on medication and spent her life struggling in school if it wasn't for an insightful doctor.  Read it here.  

When we give our children multiple outlets through which they can express themselves, they flourish. They can appreciate their body for what it can do instead of how closely it fits society’s current trends for what is beautiful. 

 Call it when you see it.

Pointing out the absurdities can help kids learn to question the messages they are continually bombarded with. Explain to them what Photoshop is. Show them videos like the one below so they can understand that much of what they see in magazines and billboards does not reflect reality.

How do you empower your children? What has helped you cultivate a healthy body image? Please share your experience and insight. I definitely don't have all the answers and would love to hear from you. 


  1. Hey, this is what I do too! We must be friends or something. Great post.

  2. Um, yeah! I kind of picked up half of these things from you Taylor. Thanks for being awesome.

  3. Also, I think I quoted you about a bajillion times in here so please don't sue me for copyright infringement.

  4. I empower my children by not putting up with McDonald's "Would you like a GIRL or a BOY toy?" Puh-lease. Toys are for everyone.

  5. I struggle with body image in part thanks to many comments I heard from family about size/amount eaten at meals/etc. I took a class from an amazingly fit woman a number of years ago who also struggled with the scale. Her trick - no scale. At doctors' offices, she said she turned her back to ignore the number when weighing in. It struck a chord with me; we are so much more than a scale number! I haven't stepped on my scale in years; it's now more a toy for my son then a tool of many sort. I word rather focus on my fitness than on my shape or size. (Though those things do rear their ugly heads now and then still.)