Many of us struggle with body image issues, most of which start at a very early age.
Approximately 30 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are on a diet at any given time, according to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
And, body image disturbances can begin as early as the preschool years, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Children subconsciously mimic what they see and hear from the adults around them, so parents and other adult role models play an important role in promoting a positive body image.
The most important first step in fostering a positive body image in children is to lead by example. Children quickly pick up on any anxiety you have about your body, and through mimicking the adults in their lives they may internalize negative feelings about their own bodies.
Instead of criticizing the fat on your legs, focus instead on expressing how lucky you are to have strong legs to carry you around all day. Don’t talk about things you want to change about your body. Instead, brag about what positive features you are grateful to have.
Next, incorporate fitness into your whole family’s routine. Play active games outside, or go for a run as a family and focus on enjoying each other and how good it feels to be active.
Children take their cues from adults and will probably decide how they feel about exercise based on how their parents talk and behave. If you talk about how much you dread exercising or it being a punishment for eating a slice of pizza the night before, chances are your children won’t be too excited about it, either. Focus on exercising to be fit, not to be thin. Start young and make it fun.
Try toddler yoga or simply kicking a ball around outside; these are great ways to foster a love of exercise in a young child.
This should be obvious, but isn’t: Don’t let your child watch you get on the scale. Many of us have picked up the bad habit of letting the numbers on the scale dictate how we feel about our bodies. As children grow, the number on the scale will grow as well. You don’t want them to be disappointed or feel bad about themselves because the number they see isn’t what they wanted it to be.
Instead of focusing on weight as a number, talk to your child about feeling good, having plenty of energy and why it’s important to be healthy.
Food shouldn’t be used as a reward or punishment. Instead of talking about eating less (or eating foods you don’t prefer) because you’re on a diet, discuss making better food choices because they are healthier. Allow children to be part of the decision-making process and let them help you prepare healthy meals as often as possible.
When cooking with different foods, point out the health benefits of the foods you’re eating. Remove as much processed food from the house as possible so that children are forced to make healthy choices. Any conversation about junk food should revolve around explaining why it isn’t healthy instead of saying that it will make us fat. The more a child feels deprived, the greater the chances that he or she will want to rebel and eat what’s not “allowed.”
If a child complains to you about his or her body, stop and listen. Have a conversation about why they feel this way, and talk them through it. If they have unrealistic ideals about what they should look like, discuss the ideals they are holding themselves to and why they might be unrealistic.
Remind them that the body is an instrument, not an ornament, and it’s beautiful no matter what size it is.