Fostering a healthy sense of body image is an important way to set up children for success in life. Research shows that positive body image is linked to higher self-esteem and healthy behaviours, while negative body image is associated with behaviours and feelings such as lower self-esteem, depression and disordered eating.
Although peers and the media shape how kids feel about their appearance as they get older, parents also play a major role in the development of their children’s sense of body image, and it starts from a very early age.
“We know that children learn by listening and watching ― think about the times you have seen your children copying something you have said or done! It is no different for messages about bodies,” said Amy Slater, an associate professor and co-director of the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, Bristol.
“Parents influence how their children come to think about their bodies in a number of ways,” she added. “These include the feelings, attitudes and conversations that parents have about their own bodies and appearance.”
Criticising your own body in front of your little one — i.e., engaging in “negative body talk” — may seem harmless because it’s not directed at the child, but kids often translate and internalise some pretty toxic messages from these sorts of comments. They can also start to think and say similar negative things about themselves.
“Negative body talk in the family environment can lead to less mindful eating, more disordered eating, less body appreciation, and increased body dissatisfaction in children, which can persist into adulthood,” noted Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.
HuffPost asked Mysko, Slater and other experts to break down the kinds of negative body image messages kids absorb when they hear their caregivers criticise their own appearances ― and to share types of comments parents should try to make instead. Read on for their insights.
Message: ‘Appearance is more important than character’
“Avoid constantly criticising your own body — e.g., ‘I’m so fat, I’ve got to lose weight’ ― as this type of self-criticism sends the message that appearance is more important than character,” Mysko advised.
It takes effort and may feel unnatural, but parents can help their children develop healthy body attitudes by putting in the work to unlearn many of their own attitudes, beliefs, biases and behaviours when it comes to food, weight, body image, health and exercise.
“Parents should try to encourage their children to value aspects of self that are not related to appearance, like being a good friend,” Slater said.
Instead of focusing on looks, try to point out and compliment people’s positive behaviours and values — including your own and your children’s. Make it clear that weight and physical attractiveness are not the most important aspects of identity and self-worth.
This helps children develop stronger self-esteem and shows that you respect people based on their character, rather than their appearance.
Message: ‘The value of bodies lies in what they look like’
Negative body talk sends the message to children that the value in bodies lies in the way they look, rather than the amazing things they can do for us.
“Even comments that seem minor, such as ‘I look fat in these jeans,’ made in front of children open the door for children to start seeing themselves in similar manners,” said Ashley Kroon Van Diest, a paediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “This is otherwise known as objectification, when bodies are seen as a set of parts to be criticised rather than celebrated for their awesome functionality that helps us be who we are and do what we do every day.”
To counter this harmful message, parents should make positive comments that show appreciation for what their bodies do, such as “My legs are so strong, they allow me to ride my bike,” “I’m grateful for my arms because they allow me to give you hugs,” or “My nose lets me smell such amazing scents; I’m so happy it helps me enjoy the world around me.”
“When you really think about it, the body is an incredible, magical machine,” said Laura Hart, senior research fellow at the Melbourne School of Population & Global Health’s Centre for Mental Health. “It heals cuts and bruises, turns food into energy, can hug and laugh and dance and sing. Or quietly watch a sunset. These abilities are truly incredible. As parents, we want to engender a sense of pride and amazement in our bodies, to help children take care of them, appreciate them, for all the things they can do, without focusing on the numbers on the scale.”
“There is convincing research to show that when parents say negative things about their own weight, shape or appearance in front of children, this increases body dissatisfaction in the child.”
If parents hear their kids making negative comments about their own bodies, follow up with a discussion emphasising the functional value of bodies, Kroon Van Diest suggested.
“Encourage children to think about non-appearance-based features they like and appreciate,” she said. “You may even write some of these down for kids to look at if they are feeling down about themselves.”
Message: ‘Bodies are something to be ashamed of’
“There is convincing research to show that when parents say negative things about their own weight, shape or appearance in front of children, this increases body dissatisfaction in the child,” Hart noted, adding that this says to the child that bodies are something to be ashamed of or worried about.
If your kids frequently express a sense of shame and negativity about their bodies, it may be helpful for them to see a professional therapist to have further discussions and develop strategies for improving body image and self-esteem. It’s worth noting that this issue can affect boys as well as girls.
“Despite popular opinion that feeling ashamed of your body motivates you to lose weight, eat well and exercise, we know that in fact the opposite is true,” she continued. “People who can appreciate their bodies for all the amazing things they can do, eat more fruit and vegetables, engage in healthy exercise and have a more stable body weight than people who have high body dissatisfaction or body shame.”
Hart believes the best way to help children develop positive health behaviours is to encourage them to feel good about their bodies and be proud of them, rather than sending messages of shame or negativity.
Mysko echoed this, suggesting parents share positive messages like “Treat your body with respect” and highlight the ways our bodies can help us achieve our goals and dreams.
Message: ‘You should want to change your body’
In addition to breeding shame, frequent negative body talk can also promote the idea that it’s normal to constantly want your body to look different.
“When parents criticise their own bodies, our children learn that bodies are something to be displeased with/disliked,” Slater noted. “If our children hear us talking negatively about our bodies, they will learn to normalise these thoughts and feelings and can become dissatisfied with their own bodies, or preoccupied with changing their body — e.g., with becoming thinner or more muscular.”
Making comments about wanting to attain a certain level of attractiveness, muscularity or weight does not help foster positive body image in kids, but instead furthers the idea that your body is never good enough the way it is.
“Likewise, stop comparing your body with the bodies of people you know or the images you see in the media,” said Mysko.
Again, parents should focus on positive comments that show body love and acceptance.
Message: ‘Bodies that don’t look a certain way are bad bodies’
Implicit in comments about wanting your body to look different is the idea that only bodies that conform to certain standards of beauty are “good” bodies, and the rest are “bad” bodies.
“Parents should try to avoid making any negative judgments or comments about their own bodies (e.g., ‘I’m so fat,’ ‘I don’t have the right body to wear X’) and the bodies of others (e.g., ‘She shouldn’t be wearing that’),” Slater noted. “Comments such as these teach children that bodies are only of value if they meet certain narrow criteria and that bodies that don’t meet this standard are ‘not worthy’ or need to be changed.”
“It is important for parents to promote body acceptance and celebrate body diversity. Say, ‘EveryBODY is beautiful, not just one shape or size.’”
“Try not to greet others with comments about their appearance ― even if you think these are positive statements (e.g., ‘You look so great ― have you lost weight?‘),” she continued. “Again, this teaches our children that only certain types of bodies are of value, or that there is such a thing as ‘good bodies.’”
Parents can instead try to teach their children to value and appreciate the diversity of looks in our society. Positive comments include “Bodies come in all different shapes, sizes and colours” and “All bodies are good bodies.” Slater also suggested modelling this concept by treating everyone with respect, regardless of their appearance.
“It is important for parents to promote body acceptance and celebrate body diversity,” Mysko added. “Say, ‘EveryBODY is beautiful, not just one shape or size.’”
Message: ‘Being fat is morally wrong’
Young children are learning values like “you shouldn’t lie” or “you should be kind to others.” Similar comments in the context of food or body image therefore can lead to a warped perception of what it means to have a larger body.
“Comments about why you or someone else shouldn’t eat something because ‘it will make you fat,’ children internalise the message that being fat is morally wrong,” Mysko noted.
Removing “should” and “shouldn’t” from the conversations about bodies and thinness or fatness can help counteract the notion that a certain look is morally right or wrong.
Message: ‘Physical activity is just for weight loss’
“Parents can also encourage a positive body image in their children by thinking about the ways they talk about food, health and physical activity in their household,” Slater noted. “For example, parents can ensure they find ways to be physically active with their children without mentioning weight.”
If kids only hear discussions of physical activity in the context of weight and body image, they may associate exercise strictly with achieving a certain appearance, rather than the amazing health benefits and joy of movement. Parents should try to separate exercise from how a person looks when discussing physical activity.
Mysko advised including physical activity in discussions of body appreciation, with comments like “I appreciate my body and I will respect it with love, nourishment, and joyful movement.”
Message: ‘Avoiding food is good’
“When parents make comments about how they were being ‘good’ because they didn’t ‘eat X, Y, or Z,’ it teaches children that avoiding (certain) food is good,” Mysko said.
This can lead to an unhealthy fixation on dieting and similarly ties food and body image to morality in a harmful way. Mysko suggested removing any sense of shame from discussions of eating.
“Speak about food as nourishment and pleasure to be enjoyed. Never should there be shame or punishment associated with food,” she said.