Recently, while supervising my son during his virtual learning kindergarten class, I was disappointed to hear that they were being taught to label foods as good or bad. Don’t all foods fit into a healthy diet?
As an author and body image expert and a mother to a three-year-old girl and five-year-old boy, it’s crucial to have body image conversations as young as possible so that they don’t experience the same body image issues I faced as a child.
While it might be hard to believe that a three-year-old could be unhappy with the way they look, a 2016 study by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) identified that nearly one-quarter of childcare professionals saw body issues in children aged three- to five-years-old.
Jacqueline Harding, PACEY advisor and a child development expert, noted that some of the factors of body image issues in the toddler years include “images on TV, images in storybooks and animations and the general chat by adults about their bodies, dieting, cosmetic surgery, etc.” In other words, children are hyper-aware of the thin and beauty ideals that our society values, regardless of what we try and teach them.
The PACEY study found that anxieties around body image are starting at a much younger age than in the past, which is why we need to have these conversations as early as possible. This is especially the case for young girls because they are the gender at most risk for body image issues. The Girls’ Attitudes survey, which looked at 1,600 girls and young women aged seven to 21, determined that the older girls get, the more ashamed they become of their appearance. If we do not teach children resilience or how to navigate body image issues, they will be more susceptible to future mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
I know I won’t always be around to correct misinformation or encourage my kids to challenge what they see, but I can teach them these three things:
1. Fat isn’t bad
When you hear the word fat, you probably associate it with being unhealthy or bad, but the truth is that you cannot tell a person’s health based on their appearance (regardless of how much fat they have). We live in a fatphobic society, which means there is a socially acceptable bias against fat people. It’s so embedded in our culture that even fat people can have internalized fatphobia, so it’s essential that we consciously challenge these types of stereotypes.
Teach your children that all bodies are good bodies. Going against valuing people for their appearance teaches your children to think about the non-physical characteristics that make people good. The fact that children are developing insecurities so young means they are ready to handle these discussions. Don’t be afraid to talk to them.
Here are some conversations you can have with young children about fat:
- “Some people think it’s bad when you are fat, but what we look like doesn’t matter as much as how nice we are.”
- “Sometimes people will call you fat to make you feel bad. But fat isn’t a bad thing. Fat is where we get our energy, and it helps us stay warm. Our fat keeps our bodies safe.”
- “Everyone looks different. Isn’t that neat? It would be pretty boring if we all looked the same.”
- “Some people think being fat is unhealthy, but you can’t tell if someone is healthy by looking at them. Some kids are born not healthy, but that’s okay. Just because someone isn’t healthy, that doesn’t mean they aren’t cool or fun people worthy of kindness and compassion!”
2. Ditch the diet talk
You are the first role model in your child’s life, and it’s your job to nurture your children’s self-esteem. When your child observes you talking negatively about yourself, they will want to mirror that kind of behaviour. If you constantly talk about avoiding foods or restricting “junk” or “bad” foods, this can lead them to have their own issues with food. It’s imperative to teach your children to be happy with the bodies they have. Remember, even when you think your kids aren’t listening, they are.
Here are some ways to be a positive role model:
- Promote intuitive eating and stop labeling foods as good or bad. All foods fit! Children are naturally intuitive eaters, but their habits change when parents micromanage what they eat. Try to teach them about balance rather than food restriction.
- Avoid “fat talk” because it suggests that fatness is bad. Talk about yourself kindly and emphasize your children’s non-physical achievements. An example of this is “You are smart and kind” or “You are very good at solving problems.”
- Teach them to be assertive and call out body-shaming behaviours by doing it just the same. Girls need to know that they are not just objects of male desire and are more than just a body.
- Teach them to be kind and empathetic towards others as well as how to navigate bullying. Treating others well will help them be kind to themselves.
3. Body positive inspiration
A study by Dove found that looking at media (such as magazines) lowers self-esteem in 80 percent of girls . This is because mainstream and social media is full of body and beauty ideals. There is no real diversity. The message that women should care and are valued for their appearance is apparent even in toddler-aged cartoons. They present the same ideals as adult media, which is that women should be thin and beautiful. This is why we need to expose children to a variety of real (unedited and unfiltered) bodies. We need to normalize normal bodies.Introduce body positive children’s books to show them that there are all kinds of bodies. Body positive books also help you start conversations with your kids about difficult topics like racism. Kids are never too young to learn how to be good people.
- Choose body positive books and media for yourself. Your kids are aware of what you are watching, regardless of whether you think they are. Rather than keeping celebrity magazines glorifying weight loss and vilifying cellulite around the house, choose body positive coffee table books instead. My book, Body Positive: A Guide to Loving Your Body, includes images of 75 unedited women and my kids love to pick it up and talk about the women’s different bodies and stories. I also really love Jade Beall’s The Bodies of Mothers book or Strong is the New Pretty by Kate T. Parker.
- They see you scrolling! Try to curate your social media feed with body positive content. Not only will your children see a variety of bodies, so will you.
- Kids are exposed to hyper-sexualized images of women everywhere (billboards, tv ads, etc.), so don’t be scared to talk to them about what they see. Ask them questions about the ads and teach them to challenge what they see.
In society, we typically focus on Band-Aid solutions for body image issues because we can never completely undo the damage that has been done from years of learning that attractiveness is important above all else. By starting to talk to kids when they are young, you’ll give them the tools to resist body image pressure and (hopefully) avoid harmful health issues.It’s never too early to start.
Emily Lauren Dick is the author of Body Positive: A Guide to Loving Your Body. She is a body image expert and photographer committed to making girls feel comfortable in their own skin. Emily is passionate about promoting positive body image, media awareness, and healthy relationships.