Treating yourself with kindness and acceptance when it comes to your body helps your kids develop a healthy, positive body image of their own.
Like it or not, your kids are watching and listening closely to all you say and do, and forming value judgements based largely on your behaviour. As their primary role model, it’s important to understand which messages you’re conveying to your kids, even unintentionally. Much of a child’s self-worth is built or transformed not only by the way you communicate with them, but by the way you communicate with yourself. A crucial area to consider is how you relate to your own body around your kids and how this influences the formation of their body image.
Developing a body image
Karen Moross, counsellor, mediator and facilitator with The Family Life Centre explains, ‘Body image refers to a person’s emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body and physical appearance. It also encompasses how you think other people view your body. It is clearly not just what we see in the mirror.’
Women are especially likely to complain of being overweight (even when they’re not) and point out an abundance of
physical flaws they feel are so obvious to themselves, but barely noticeable to others. Karen says this is because our body image isn’t developed in isolation, but through a mixture of influences, including society, media, culture, family and friends, who all convey messages about bodies, beauty and attractiveness. This may encourage a belief that there’s an ideal or ‘correct’ body. Unfortunately, this ideal is often an unnatural and unattainable appearance.
While it’s generally assumed teens are especially vulnerable, uncomfortable or self-conscious about their bodies as they navigate the challenges of puberty, Karen says it’s evident that children begin to express awareness and concerns about their bodies at a much earlier age. Carey Bremridge, a Cape Town-based clinical psychologist and educator at SACAP, reveals research has shown even young infants have an awareness of self: ‘Sadly, we are receiving more and more feedback from school teachers and parents that bullying around body image is occurring at
the preschool age,’ she adds.
Parental influence on body image
Parents play a significant role in influencing their kids, even though they may not recognise their toddlers start
mimicking their behaviours and attitudes regarding how they interpret bodies and health, says Karen. ‘Even if we tell our kids they’re perfect just the way they are, and their value doesn’t stem from their appearance, what we say in front of them about other people, including ourselves, can matter even more,’ she explains.
In the digital age of social media we’re bombarded by idealised images of beauty. These images can create expectations that are impossible to meet, leaving people feeling inadequate and ashamed about their looks and appearance. A major source of body shame comes from taking media images to heart and feeling compelled to
live up to them. ‘This internalised pressure to be thin or aspire to a certain body type increases the feeling of being unattractive, which in turn leads to feeling worthless and undeserving,’ says Karen.
Added to this is the media’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of characters who don’t meet these ideals. Kivan Bay, ‘Fat Studies’ scholar and activist, notes the overwhelming framing of larger characters in media as greedy, lazy and corrupt, as comic spectacles, or as morally bankrupt. Although these pressures and stereotypes can be difficult to disregard, it’s important to remain critical of depictions online and in the media, and avoid becoming a conduit between media body shaming and your kids.
As a significant role model in your children’s lives, you may unintentionally impart dysfunctional thinking and behaviour patterns to your children, who will find these patterns extremely difficult to unlearn, says Carey. Fad
and starvation diets, complaining or joking self-deprecatingly about your weight, size or appearance, and exercising excessively are all unhealthy habits that children may internalise and use as information to form their understanding of themselves and those around them.
Potential dangers of a poor self-image
‘Body dissatisfaction and poor body image are widespread, and can have a range of serious negative effects,’ Karen says. One of the most damaging potential outcomes is the development of an eating disorder. ‘The environment you
grow up in definitely contributes significantly to the manifestation of eating disorders. All family members (not only moms) can contribute to heightened self-consciousness and body shaming,’ Carey explains. Children who develop
eating disorders are at a high risk of suffering from related issues, including:
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety disorders
- Suicidal thoughts
- Problems with healthy sexual development
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Fear of rejection
‘If your kids show signs of being concerned about their weight, encourage them to partner with you in getting fit and learning to enjoy the benefits and joy of games, sport and nature with fun activities like hiking. Never focus on weight; specifically encourage a mindset of wellness, fitness and fun,’ Carey advises.
Inspiring body positivity
Helping your kids develop a healthy body image isn’t so different from helping them with the other basics of life, like brushing their teeth or tying their shoelaces – you have to teach them, Karen says. ‘The same is true for the values we want them to learn, such as appreciating their body and health. With the difficult things, you can teach them in little bits, on an ongoing basis, by being a good role model. One way to address this is to change the way we think of our bodies by shifting the focus from evaluation and critique to care and appreciation.’ Karen encourages working on modelling a healthy acceptance of your own body shape, and thinking carefully about how you speak about appearances. ‘Even seemingly friendly nicknames or teasing can be hurtful,’ she says. You should also show
acceptance for other people’s body sizes and shapes.
Crucially, Karen adds, you need to demonstrate self-compassion, which is rooted in a genuine sense of care and concern for your physiological and psychological wellbeing. ‘Promoting self-compassion can lead us to view our bodies as precious, and can motivate us to be loving and kind to our physical selves, which involves acceptance and respect.’
Carey advises moving the focus away from just the physical, and validating all aspects of your children, such as their intellect, kindness, generosity, courage, perseverance, consideration of others and creativity. ‘These are all wonderful qualities in a human, which need to be nurtured,’ she says. ‘Instead of focusing on goals and achievements, focus on internal attributes.’
Karen agrees, adding ‘Emphasizing and affirming what children can do, rather than focusing on their appearance or weight, is associated with a better body image. The aim is to minimise the extent to which self-worth is based on appearance.’
It’s likely that your children will come up against the same pressures many of us face, and feel intimidated by the
beauty ideals for men and women portrayed online and in the media. Carey says the best way to deal with this is to speak openly and honestly with your kids, and encourage them to become critical thinkers around what the media defines as success for young people. It’s important to highlight that the beauty, diet, food and pharmaceutical industries have a certain agenda, which is why their advertising perpetuates certain stereotypes, she emphasises.
Karen stresses the importance of pointing out that different individuals, eras and cultures have different beauty ideals, acknowledging beauty comes in many forms, and no one is ‘perfect’, as perfect doesn’t really exist.
If you’re worried about your child’s body image, self-esteem or eating behaviours, carefully address the topic of weight loss or gain. Karen says this discussion requires sensitivity and a neutral tone. ‘Listen to their concerns and encourage communication and dialogue, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a health practitioner for guidance and support.’
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: FOTOLIA.COM