When my daughter came into the world a little over four years ago, I knew it was important to raise her to love herself and have a positive self-image. I have lived the majority of my 35 years feeling badly about myself and my body, to the extent of harming myself and putting my life in danger trying to change it. After years of anorexia and bulimia, I no longer engage in the behaviors, but the poor body image remains. I do not want this for my daughter and have compiled a list of six techniques I believe will give her the best possible chance of feeling positively about her body. These are as important to follow with boys as with girls, as they struggle with self-image too. My experience with eating disorders and my experience as a counselor have helped to shape this list, but I am by no means an expert. I am just a mother who wants the best for her child.
- Never say anything about your size in front of your child. You are your child’s primary role model. If you tear yourself down due to your size, your child will learn to do the same. They will learn their size determines their self-worth. Also, try to refrain from commenting on other people’s bodies. This can be a difficult area to navigate because comments we think of as being positive can actually deliver a negative message. We mean it as a compliment when we congratulate others on losing weight, but really we are saying that the person’s current state of thinness is preferable to how they were. Even when we simply note that a person is so thin and looks great, it delivers the message that larger people do not look great. (Unless you also note people are so large and look great.) Instead, offer compliments about how happy and healthy somebody looks. This puts the focus on two very important values instead of on body size and shape.
- Do not weigh yourself in front of your child. Doing this on a regular basis teaches your child that the number on the scale is something worth fixating on. They learn that it determines worth. If you must weigh yourself do so in private. Better yet, throw out the scale. I’m not saying we should ignore our weight and size. Instead, focus on eating healthily the majority of the time and exercising regularly. Judge how you are doing by how you feel. Get weighed at doctor’s visits so they can advise you if changes are needed, but anything beyond that is just not necessary.
- Do not categorize food as “good and “bad”. Don’t say things like “I’m going to be bad and have an extra piece of cake”. Food should never be categorized as good or bad, as children will learn to feel shame when eating certain types of food. Your child should be able to grow up enjoying an ice cream cone or a chocolate chip cookie without feeling that they are being bad. Of course, children do have to learn how to eat a balanced, healthy diet, so I suggest differentiating food as healthy or unhealthy and stressing moderation.
- Be aware of the media’s impact on your child. The media is a huge force in making children feel inadequate, and while we cannot shelter them from the pressures it creates completely, there are some actions we can take. I recommend trying to make sure your child watches shows, read books, and plays with toys that show positive traits of individuals other than slender bodies. Courage, intelligence, strength, kindness, curiosity, motivation and honesty are just a few values to teach your children. That is not to say they can never watch a show or play with a toy with a good figure, but try to encourage interest in characters who are valued for things other than, or in addition to, their shape and size. Make sure to point these traits out to your child while you spend time together, and help them see these traits in themselves.
- Work on healing yourself. During this process, it is important to not solely focus on your child, but also to work on changing your own attitudes and beliefs, if necessary. You matter too, and you deserve to live in a body you accept and appreciate. As a bonus, your child will notice when you are truly happy with yourself, and that may be the greatest lesson of all.
- Maintain an open conversation. As your child gets older, these tips will still apply. However, pressures both from media and peers will greatly increase, creating an even greater need to be mindful of their day to day experiences. Try to maintain an open conversation about these issues, rather than pretending they don’t exist. The best way to do this is simply to listen. Don’t greet them with judgment or advice, greet them with acceptance and empathy. There is, of course, a place for guidance, but first, you must listen and accept. Most people simply want to talk about their feelings in a place they feel is safe. If they ask you for advice, then offer it, but let them be in control of the conversation.
I want what most parents want. I want my daughter to be happy and healthy. Period. Whatever that looks like for her is absolutely perfect in my eyes. I hope that in receiving this message from me on a daily basis, she will be able to navigate the most challenging years of maintaining body positivity.
I would love to hear if you have any other suggestions for raising our children to love themselves, inside and out.
Jenny was raised in Ohio, and after a decade long stay in Boston, moved to Columbus in 2016. Top reasons for returning: family, weather, traffic, and housing prices. Jenny and her family love discovering all the many fun activities available in the area. When she isn’t working as a counselor, or spending time with her husband and four-year-old (i.e. almost never), Jenny reads and practices yoga. The key to a good day for Jenny is her morning routine: early morning cuddles with her daughter and enjoying a good cup of coffee before the craziness of life begins.