It is possible to nurture a healthy body image in our children!
How? By having (or developing) a healthy body image ourselves.
Unlike tween-agers and older, small children are not at a developmental stage where talking about body image is going to make any sense. According to Piaget, developmental psychologist of old, a child’s ability to understand and apply advanced abstract social concepts is difficult until at least 11 years old and beyond. And body image is exactly that: an abstract concept.
What do we mean by that? Well, abstract as opposed to concrete. While our size or shape or weight is something we can measure using a variety of tools (a concrete concept), how we feel about, understand, and apply these feelings is a much more intangible (abstract) concept. A child under the age of 7, for example, would only understand that a person was ‘fat’ if we use the term ‘fat’ to describe large or rotund people. If we do that consistently enough they understand that that body shape is called ‘fat’. It only comes later that a child would understand the complexity of the label ‘fat’.
What a small child IS capable of doing, is associate feelings with a label and words. For example, if they see their parent or other loved one visibly upset in reaction to either their own self-judgement (“I’m so sick of being/feeling so fat”) or the judgment of someone else and that upset is attached to a label (“You’re such a fatso”), then they will over time associate the negative feeling with the word as well. Something that was never about them can – and does – become solidified as a negative belief about body image. In this example, fat = bad (feeling). This is why we are seeing children as young as 6 years old feeling distressed that they are ‘fat’.
Have you heard about the ‘Fat is not a Feeling’ movement on Facebook recently? It is so common for us these days to say we ‘feel fat’. But we don’t really ‘feel fat’. We may feel shame, guilt, sad, inadequate, depressed, or a sense of unworthiness that is attached to a body shape or weight… Any number of emotions that have gotten attached to your concept of what ‘fat’ is for you – but you don’t feel fat.
To complicate matters, cultural norms, societal expectations, and even peer pressure all compound to make each persons understanding of their body image different. There is no ‘universal’.
The lack of a ‘universal’ feeling about body image is precisely why the media is so powerful in shaping our minds (and thus our behavior) – especially those of our young children. The idea that ‘beauty’ has a universally accepted standard because of the constant messages splashed before our eyes by the media is a very difficult message to ignore. And because we as humans find comfort in norms and constants, we easily attach ourselves to these ‘abstract concepts’ and ta-da!! – we’ve created a concrete concept.
Beauty – fundamentally an abstract concept – has been transformed into a concrete concept. One that can be measured, photographed and sold.
So, how can we foster a healthy body image in our small children?
For small children, who naturally learn by watching and imitating (more than by talking), it is relatively simple.
- Use kind words to describe yourself. If you have nothing nice to say – about yourself or others – don’t say anything. Think it if you have to (do you have to??). Bite your tongue if necessary. But don’t say it.
- Notice and then limit your kids exposure to media that’s sole focus is to ‘sell’ a standard concept of beauty.
- Don’t be afraid to both dress up and rock sweats. Showing you are comfortable in your body, no matter what adorns it, speaks volumes. Make ‘make up’ or clothing a choice to adorn your inner beauty rather than an attempt to be somebody else’s standards of beauty.
- Be a healthy role model. Make healthy food choices. Exercise. Rest. Encourage healthy food choices by having healthy food and snacks available for your kids. Treat your body with respect, and others will follow suit.
- And – if and when your kids are ready to talk about their fears or concerns about how they look – be ready to be real. Be open. Talk. Care.
You’ve got this. And we’ve got your back.
P.S.- Tanya wrote a piece on her personal experience with parenting and body image issues here.