Help Promote A Healthy Body Image For Your Kids

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Meghan Trainor is still bringing down the house with her hit “All About That Bass.” The tune spent over 34 weeks on the Billboard Top 10. It’s not even a song about romance or love or broken hearts, those mainstays of rock, pop and country…it’s about body image and liking yourself as you are.

And as a parent, I say it’s about time.

Here are some of the lyrics:

Yeah, it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two
But I can shake it, shake it
Like I’m supposed to do
‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
And all the right junk in all the right places

I see the magazine workin’ that Photoshop
We know that shit ain’t real
C’mon now, make it stop
If you got beauty, beauty, just raise ‘em up
‘Cause every inch of you is perfect
From the bottom to the top

Yeah, my mama she told me don’t worry about your size
She says, “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”
You know I won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll
So if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and move along

These are important messages for young people – not just girls, but boys too – growing up today.

Kids are bombarded with photo-shopped images of “perfect” kids, teenagers and young adults from the time they first look at a computer or iPad screen. Most of the idolized images are impossibly thin and beautiful. However, it is normal for a teen’s weight to fluctuate, and common for both boys and girls to temporarily be overweight between ages 8 to 12, right before their puberty growth surge. Not surprisingly, hallway and on-line bullying behavior often focuses on kids’ weight and appearance, adding to the anxiety children feel about their bodies.

As a result of the contradiction between media images and the realities of kids’ bodies, research shows that by age 6, girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape.

Forty to sixty percent of elementary school girls ages 6-12 are concerned about becoming too fat.

Nearly 50% of 9-11 year-old girls are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.

Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

The most common eating disorders among kids are anorexia (self-starvation), bulimia (binging and vomiting or using laxatives), and compulsive exercise – afflictions most parents should already be somewhat familiar with, and afraid of. Anorexia presents particular dangers, as it’s the psychiatric disorder with the highest mortality rate. There’s also a new entry into the eating disorders pantheon for parents to watch for and carefully discourage: “orthorexia”. This so-called “perfectionistic eating” comes disguised as eating healthier (limiting oneself to vegan, vegetarian, or organic foods only) even though growing kids need a certain amount of fat, dairy and protein that adults do not.

Here’s how moms and dads, siblings and friends can help:

• Give kids positive messages about how they look. It’s no coincidence that Meghan Trainor references her mother telling her to accept her body as beautiful; parents have a tremendous influence on how our children’s self-esteem. Tell your child that he or she looks great as often as you can; a natural opportunity is when they come down in the morning dressed for school or as soon as you see them after school.

• Try not to say “you look like you’ve lost weight” or anything weight specific.

• But balance is important – since we are dealing with distortion, offer them an accurate view. Be candid if they have put on weight – but also be supportive about why sometimes that is normal, and what they can do (more exercise, cutting out French fries, etc).

• Model acceptance about your own body in front of your kids. Don’t fall into the trap of saying “I’m so fat” or “I can’t eat that because in our family we have a tendency to put on weight” in front of your children.

• Have kids eat with the family as much as possible. Parents’ job is to put out healthy food – for both snacks and meals. But don’t hover over them when they eat and don’t apply adult restrictions to kids’ diets – kids have different physical needs to facilitate healthy growth. Check with your pediatrician or a children’s nutritionist if you need professional guidance to determine your child’s healthy weight range.

The bottom line for parents: kids need to learn to eat healthily on their own as part of growing up. Our job is to guide them with positive messages about their bodies and our own, and by modeling healthy eating and healthy attitudes. Over- or under-involvement by parents can lead to more compulsions and disordered eating patterns, and a lifetime of struggling with food, weight and self-esteem. C’mon now, we can all make it stop.

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