How to Help Kids Accept Their Bodies and Celebrate Body Diversity
An excerpt from the forthcoming book Nurture: How to Raise Kids who Love Food, Their Bodies, and Themselves
It’s important to talk to kids about puberty. And I don’t just mean the birds and the bees, though that’s super important.
It’s important to talk to them about the diversity of bodies.
A whole lot.
Why? Because that kind of talking will counteract the millions (yep, millions) of images that your child or teen will see in videos, advertising, and on social media. The vast majority of these images highlight perfected, filtered, and idealized bodies.
Reminding kids of those filters encourages good media literacy. Yes, models and celebrities have pores and cellulite like the rest of us, but they also have their own makeup artists, personal trainers, and photo editors who airbrush the heck out of their images to make them look “perfect.”
In fact, due to media exposure, research has shown that children as young as three or four are able to understand and express social standards and stereotypes related to bodies and weight. Think about children’s movies and what the heroes and villains look like. Thinness and fatness are represented with significant stereotypes in most kids’ programming.
One analysis of ten popular children’s shows in 2020 found attractiveness was only associated with thin characters. Kids take this in and don’t even realize they are being encouraged to like one body type over another.
It’s these images, which come to us at a young age and continue over our lifetimes, that set our preferences. If the images change, so will our preferences. History shows this to be true, as the thin ideal is a more recent preference that has not presented throughout history.
The machine of the media, including social media, is working hard to shape those preferences. Social media includes a high proportion of appearance-related content, including images that promote appearance comparisons selected and edited with the goal of presenting appearance ideals.
Beyond awareness around media, I encourage you to talk to preteens about how natural it is to have body and weight changes throughout life, especially at puberty. Preteens get round. Yes, that soft, squishy tummy is normal. Adolescence is the time of life, second only to infancy, when the body and brain grow exponentially fast. In the preteen years, the body needs to obtain extra fat weight. That increase in body proportions provides reserves that help fuel important teenage growth and development.
If preteens are allowed to round out naturally, without interference from well-meaning parents or health care providers, most of that roundness fuels important tissue and organ growth. Interfering with your child’s weight by putting them on a diet or by encouraging unnatural “six-pack” abs may stunt the development of their brain, vital organs, and height, never mind their self-esteem.
In fact, research shows that the number-one way to make sure that your children grow up to be adults who struggle with their weight is to put them on diets during childhood. Dieting is not a behavior that encourages growth and well-being; it promotes conservation of energy, slowed metabolic rate, and fat storage.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Fat storage, I mean.)
The more we demonize body fat in children, the more we feed into a culture which claims that, in order to be acceptable and lovable, we need to look a certain way or have a particular body type. There are so many reasons why we have the body types that we do: genetics, hormones, even the way our pregnant moms ate. (For example, epigenetic studies of European famine indicate that starving moms produce heavier humans.) Making children or teens feel bad about and overly responsible for their body type is a recipe for a life-long struggle with food and fitness, one that leads to control instead of care for the body.
If you notice kids dieting because they are dancers or athletes being encouraged to “reduce,” do something about that. Reach out to their dance instructors or coaches and remind them that performance is about hard work and determination, not body type. Yes, maybe body type matters to an Olympic athlete where a fraction of a second makes a difference in a race and body proportions matter. (Notice that swimmers and runners tend to have different and somewhat homogenous body types at the elite level.)
However, encouraging a team of young people to lose weight to get faster will likely have the opposite effect for most kids as they deplete their caloric fuel. Those who improve their times when they diet may harm their ability to be sustainable athletes and movers for many decades to come, as tissues get stressed. Running on fumes almost always leads to injuries, illness, and burnout. Don’t let coaches prioritize winning if it’s at the expense of your child’s self-esteem and health.
A popular aesthetic among teen models is prepubescent and razor-thin. This prepubescent look is not most bodies. Who says that all bellies can’t be beautiful in cropped tops? Our culture does. Even kids who conform to this thinner ideal body type at age 13 might not at age 17. Please talk about body changes at home while your kids are taking in all those images. Challenge them to find pictures on Instagram of humans with diverse body sizes, asymmetrical features, and disabilities. Encourage them to find role models who care for their whole selves and have meaningful lives, not just stereotypically attractive bodies.
My kids got tired of my bodies-come-in-different-sizes rants, but I later heard them repeating similar words to teenage friends who shared negative body thoughts. They told their friends they love them and they are so much more than just their bodies. They heard it so much themselves growing up, and they believe it. (At least some of the time. The cultural messages are strong for everyone, sadly, no matter how much opposition we interject.)
Sometimes it’s essential to be a broken record with our children when our culture is so broken and wrapped up in body ideals based on making most people feel shame so they will buy the next diet book, pill, or fitness product.
Furthermore, insidious racism and weight discrimination exist on so many levels. People in larger bodies experience oppression every single day in this culture. Let’s not be blind to this oppression around body size, just as we are trying not to be blind to racism in our culture. Let’s work toward change, appreciate bodies of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities, in order to bring more openness and acceptance to future generations.
In summary, how do we help our kids accept their bodies and selves and respect those of others?
Normalize roundness as part of growth.
Encourage health and well-being for the whole person and not for producing a particular body type.
Challenge media images of “perfect” appearance. Tell them that real faces don’t have filters and have pores. Real legs aren’t always smooth. Real bellies aren’t always flat or muscular.
Don’t tolerate fat-shaming in any form, and don’t encourage it by overtly or subtly favoring a specific body type in your children.
Remind kids that people come in all different shapes, colors, abilities, and sizes and that bodies change a lot over the lifespan.
If your preteen doesn’t freak out about the naturally soft belly that is a hallmark of early puberty, then she/he/they will be less likely to freak out someday about natural middle-aged body shifting, or child-bearing weight changes, or their body softening in a pandemic.
I have listened for nearly three decades to the stories of people with disordered eating and body image concerns. By and large, most of the internalized messages that their bodies are unacceptable came from the childhood and teen years. Disordered eating and challenged relationships with the body develop for all kinds of reasons. Some of the reasons are related to our culture and the fat phobia and weight discrimination experienced from adults and medical professionals.
Sprinkle body acceptance messages early and often with the kids you spend time with. Find them adult allies and medical professionals who will do the same. A healthy adult relationship with food, body, and self may depend on it.
If you appreciated this article and want more support, you might enjoy reading my book Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self. I’m working on editing my second book, Nurture: How to Raise Kids Who Love Food, Their Bodies, and Themselves. I welcome your thoughts and feedback on the article above, and I’d love to hear more about what you’d like me to include in this upcoming compassionate guide for parents.
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