Raising Body Positive Kids in a Body Negative World

The world is messed up you are fineI’m honored that this post is part of BEDA’s Weight Stigma Awareness Week, please check out all of the awesome work that they are doing.  

I was at an event recently where we were doing icebreakers. The “light hearted” question we were all supposed to answer was “what advice would you give your 10 year old self?” The other women said things like “you can be anything you want!” and “you’ll never use algebra so don’t worry about it so much!”  Everyone was smiling and laughing so when I said, completely seriously “Don’t diet.  Don’t ever, ever diet” it kind of stopped the show. But it started a conversation about the ways that a sizeist world had messed us all up around our relationship with our bodies.

In my work as a speaker, writer, and blogger I’m most often talking with adults who are trying to overcome a history of body image issues and chronic dieting that often goes all the way back to childhood and is perpetuated by our current thin-obsessed culture. When I do speak to and with girls, sometimes as young as third grade, I hear about the extreme pressure to be thin and the fat shaming (both often coming from adults) that is leading to a world where 1 out of 4 children had dieted prior to turning 7, and a staggering 80% of American girls aged 10 have been on diets. Also concerning was the finding that one-third of boys and the majority of girls ages 6 to 8 wish their bodies were thinner, and where the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that hospitalizations of children younger than 12 years for eating disorders rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006. (Children UNDER 12)

One of the things that can help kids deal with this is adults who not only model healthy behavior, but who also point out what is happening and give kids some ammunition against a world where they will be encouraged to judge themselves and each other harshly, and where predatory industries see them as a target demographic.

Role modeling can be tough.  Often adults who have been raised and conditioned by society to have crappy self-esteem and body image are trying to raise kids with high self-esteem and body image, and that can be very difficult to do. I think that one of the best things that we can do for the kids in our lives is to work on ourselves, starting with the way that we talk about ourselves.  

Here are some things that I wish more adults had done when I was growing up:

  • Stop negative body talk, all of it, right now. Start with your own body. Kids believe what we do more than what we say, so if we talk badly about our own bodies, but then tell kids who look like us that they are beautiful, they are going to see right through that. Decide that you are going to talk about things you like about your body, celebrate exactly what you look like and what your body can do. Don’t say negative things about other people’s bodies.  When you watch the Oscar’s, encourage kids to focus on the performer’s accomplishments and not on how they look.
  • Have books and art around that highlight and celebrate a variety of bodies – people of different sizes, shapes, colors, dis/abilities, ages, and more.. http://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=10912
  • Talk about health in terms of health and never in terms of weight or body size.  Let kids know that bodies come in lots of sizes and all bodies are good bodies, and let them know that, while there are things that they can do to support their health, it is not a barometer of worthiness or entirely within our control.
  • Make health about fun, not about restriction and punishment.  Talk about what kids can DO to support their health instead of suggesting what they should restrict or not do.
  • I have a talk I give to all ages called “The World is Messed Up, You’re Fine” and I think that’s an important message to give kids.  Let them know that a lot of times adults, including adults we’re supposed to trust, do super messed up things, often meaning well but messed up nonetheless. When it comes to body size and health right now the world is pretty messed up -people insist that bodies are good or bad depending on what size they are and there’s a lot of prejudice, negative body talk, and bullying that happens around size.  There are even some doctors who believe this, and even think that they can make guesses about how healthy someone is by what they look like.  The truth is that people come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and all bodies are good bodies.
  • Be honest – explain the concepts of oppression, and privilege and activism in an age-appropriate way. Yes, in our society people who look a certain way may be treated better, and if you think that’s wrong you can fight to end it.  You can also talk about weight and health – explain that there are some people who may want the best for them, but they are unfortunately ill-informed about the truth about the diversity of body sizes that exist and how health works (maybe start with the story of Galileo.) You can also bridge this lesson to talk about other types of oppression – racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism et al,  areas where they have privilege and how they can use that privilege to help (age-appropriate intersectionality FTW!)
  • Point out the ways that the industries profit from us hating our bodies and trying to achieve some stereotype of beauty that is unattainable and arbitrary.
  • Never encourage kids to diet. Nothing good comes of it.  Research from the University of Minnesota found that: “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors.”  Encourage kids of all sizes to appreciate their bodies and see them as amazing and worthy of care. Then work to make sure that they have the resources to take good care of 

Kids are living in a world where companies will try, at every opportunity, to (as my friend CJ Legare puts it) steal their self-esteem and sell it back to them at a profit.  If we can help those kids develop their self-esteem and then hang on to it when the beauty and diet industries are trying to tear it away from them, we’ll give them a fighting chance to make a real change in their own world, and in the whole world.

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14 thoughts on “Raising Body Positive Kids in a Body Negative World

  1. AAP has recently released new guidelines that say to never encourage kids to diet. It still has problems with language/assumptions, but I cried when I read it. So great.

  2. Any thoughts about body-positive exercise? I realize exercise is not an obligation, but it’s also something a lot of people do, and all too many of them go in with a self-punitive attitude.

    1. I think the biggest thing would be to do stuff with your kids. Walking, biking, swimming. Heck, just dancing around the living room.

      People do stuff that is fun. Find the fun.

    2. In addition to finding the fun, as Isstrout said, also find goals that have nothing to do with body-weight or shape.

      Increased stamina
      Increased strength
      Increased flexibility
      To be able to do that amazing move you saw your idol do in that performance the other day

      Stuff like that.

  3. OMG this is SO important. My mom hated the way she looked and hated her weight and often told me how thin she was in high school. It made me even more uncomfortable with how I looked. I already had enough issues since I hit puberty in 5th grade and was a C cup by 7th.

    I wish my mom had liked herself (and made me feel like she liked me) so I would have had an easier time liking myself.

    1. This is where it is. My mom was always struggling with her weight. At her most she was like a size 10. When she lost weight she handed her clothes down to me. I was a size 10. And I thought I was fat. Because she should know right? If she’s fat at size 10, loses weight, and hands her clothes down to me and I can mostly fit them, then I must be fat. I gained more quickly after that, and by the time I was 16 and was about a size 14-16 my mom had sent me to therapy and bought me a book about dieting (seemed to emphasize portion control, but I didn’t really go on any diet). She thought my weight gain was due to being sexually molested when I was a child. How’s that for self confidence booster. Your body is wrong and we’re blaming it on your childhood trauma you thought you got over. My therapist (same one I had when I was a child for 5 years working through the incident) saw me a few times them decided she didn’t need to continue seeing me, she decided I had adjusted well and seemed fine, though she rightly hit the nail on the head when she noticed that I had some anger towards my parents I didn’t want to talk about.

      1. I think some of my weight gain may have had to do with being molested and the creepy sexual tension, but when I said something about it to my mom, instead of having a real conversation, she said something to the effect of ‘quit eating so much’ or ‘lose weight’ or something incredibly unhelpful like that.

        To this day I honestly don’t know how much of my weight has to do with genetics, and how much is from messed up family stuff.

        Seriously, kids are aware of what their parents do, even if they can’t articulate it.

        1. yeah, the point is we don’t know what causes it and it doesn’t really matter, there is nothing wrong with being fat, so doctors therapists and moms trying to find a reason/person to place blame on is not necessary.
          It did turn out I had some issues about my childhood abuse, but they didn’t surface until I got married and started having sex. Then they had to be dealt with. Blaming fat on childhood trauma doesn’t help anything. Blaming childhood sexual trauma for your sexual hangups as an adult on the other hand gives you a starting point for dealing with the issues and talking them through until you hopefully resolve them. It took me a little while to work through my sexual stuff, but once I did I was fine.

        2. Recently there was a news story (which I think has been bandied about for a few decades) about how depressed people and those using drugs for treating anxieties, should just get up off their duff and exercise, and then they won’t be so depressed. The implication being that you’re depressed because you’re fat, and if we treat that and you become thin, then the depression goes away.

          Not very robust science, and this particular conference/study wasn’t well designed.

          1. I may not have seen the story you are speaking of, but I’ve seen enough ‘just eat and exercise right and you won’t be depressed’ bullshit to recognize it as ableist for certain.

            I never got the impression that they thought being thin would cure depression, just that it can easily be resolved if you did the right things, whatever those are supposed to be.

            My social anxiety certainly wasn’t better until I got on medication. I’ve had it since I was a scrawny kid. Heck, some days my anxiety made me not want to go out in public at all, which made it difficult and occasionally impossible to follow the directive to ‘take a walk in nature in order to feel better.’ Not that everyone has a safe/natural space to walk around in, or the time to do it, or decent shoes, or the physical ability.

            Nothing magically cures depression (or other mental illness). Maybe avoiding certain foods will help you out. Heck, maybe some movement will give you a bit of a boost.

            I just wish people would stop trotting out the same old bullshit and making people feel bad for something that they have limited control over.

            Heck, not even everyone responds to medication.

  4. This post really is on the mark. Kids who are put on weight loss diets almost always fail, have loss of self esteem and are at great risk of developing eating disorders. Unfortunately in this visually oriented culture the acting “profession” is given the power to project their concepts of “beauty” on the whole population. A substantial majority do not fit these limited standards and are made to feel inadequate when they are really quite healthy and normal. Many other types besides fat people are being abused. Whenever we turn on the TV or go to a movie we are often subliminally blasted with these unreal standards. By helping a child to see this as a basic source of visual discrimination, hopefully you will start the development of a soldier who individually determines how to fight to change this scourge. Such a soldier is the most effective of all, because nobody can predict how they will fight.

    1. This is an impression rather than research, but I think kids who put themselves on diets are as likely to develop eating disorders as kids who were put on diets by adults.

      1. The sad thing is that some of the “diets” that prescribed/ordered for children are, in fact, eating disorders. The “only eat one meal per day, and make it a salad sans dressing,” for instance. That is disordered eating!

        We’d do much better to teach our children to listen to our bodies, and recognize cravings, and realize that if our body is craving something, it means it needs some nutrient in that thing we are craving, and we should satisfy it. And we should stop when we are satisfied, and not mess with our portions to the point that we cannot even recognize when we are satisfied.

        How many people who have forced themselves to starve wind up never knowing when they are actually full? Learning to recognize that is a huge step in recovery.

        And please, parents, remember – even if you kid has put on some weight, they are CHILDREN and STILL GROWING! They might very well be gearing up for a growth spurt. Take off that extra weight, and you’ll stunt their growth! Limit their food (and nutrient) intake, and you’ll make for brittle bones and other physical issues that they could have avoided by unrestricted eating.

        Instead, encourage your kids to do positive things. Exercise more, for the sake of fun, strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and just being able to do awesome things. Encourage your kids to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, not only for nutritional value, but because the more variety they enjoy in their diets while they are young, the better the will be able to handle dietary vagaries when they grow older, and perhaps travel or make friends from other cultures, and need to be able to share in those foods.

        Make your health choices about actual health, and not appearance, and make them positive and additive, rather than negative.

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