Poor body image can have a range of negative social effects. Body image is how we think and feel about our bodies and how we imagine we look. Our image may have nothing to do with our actual appearance; it’s all about our self-perceptions. Poor body image can lead to disordered eating, compulsive exercise, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Relationships, social functioning, and mood can all be seriously affected by low self-esteem. It can cause some people to decrease social interactions, creating feelings of loneliness and isolation.
We’re bombarded with the negative messages. Today, there’s a steady stream of media messages and images working to distort our view of how our bodies should look. That’s why it’s especially important for parents and adult influencers to help shape a healthy body image for children from an early age. We hold tremendous power in what we do and say, especially when it comes to young eyes and ears.
The most influential role model in your children’s lives is you. You can encourage your kids to feel good about themselves by showing them how it’s done. Try these strategies for being a positive body image role model:
- Examine your own relationship with food and exercise. Eating disorders often run in families. If you’ve had a disordered relationship with food, it’s especially important to be vigilant about the impact your attitudes and behaviors can have on your kids.
- Practice the rules of “normal” eating. Children learn eating behaviors from their parents, so make sure you include plenty of variety in your family’s meals. Everything under the sun has value, so practice the classic rule of everything in moderation, including moderation!
- Stop the negative body talk. Be aware of the impact of negative body talk around your children, whether it’s about your own body or someone else’s. Work on modeling a healthy acceptance of your body shape and size. Don’t complain about ‘ugly’ body parts, especially in front of your children.
- Avoid dieting and don’t encourage your children to diet, either. Dieting can be dangerous, as it can cause dehydration, weakness, fatigue, nausea, and headaches, and can lead to inadequate vitamin and mineral intake. It’s also a key risk factor in developing an eating disorder. Instead, focus on being healthy and happy.
- Make teasing off-limits. Don’t tease about weight, body shape, or looks. Even seemingly innocent nicknames can be hurtful if they focus on some aspect of one’s appearance.
- Listen to your children’s’ concerns about their body shape and appearance. Puberty, in particular, can be a distressing time. Reassure your children that their physical changes are normal and that everyone develops at different times and rates.
- Don’t focus on the physical. If you put a lot of emphasis on appearances, your child will too. Instead, talk to your children about all the different aspects that make up a person, such as personality traits, skills, and abilities.
Children are sensitive to what they hear about bodies—whether it’s about someone else’s or their own. By making sure your home environment is free of any kind of body shaming, you’ll help your kids to feel confident about themselves and be accepting of their bodies.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, Executive Director at The Body Image Therapy Center.