Praising your child’s pretty tutu or muscly arms can actually do more harm than good. So what should parents say to positively promote kids’ body image confidence?
Fiona Sutherland, Director of Body Positive Australia and Special K #OwnIt Ambassador, knows first-hand the impact innocent comments based on a child’s appearance can have on their confidence and understanding of what is ‘healthy’. As an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Sports Dietitian, Fiona has spent more than 10 years promoting positive body image and dealing with the negative effects. Here, Fiona explains the dos and don’ts parents say and the message it sends to our kids…
Why are some kids more vulnerable than others to body image messages?
“Kids vary so much in the way they take in information,” explains Fiona. “It depends on many complex factors, including personality, life experience and exposure to imagery which may perpetuate any sensitivities around body. The problem is that these days, more than ever, kids are exposed to imagery and experiences that are shaping their attitudes towards bodies – their own body, and that of others. Girls are exposed to images of slender, youthful and impossibly beautiful images from a very young age and these are often partnered with a message of ‘health’.”
“Boys on the other hand are often more exposed to muscularised and athletic images, reflecting that strength, power and body size is part of being male. It’s important to remember that as females develop, they move away from the ‘ideal’ image whereas boys move towards the larger ideal image.”
How can parents explain ‘differences’ in children’s body shapes and sizes?
“It’s completely normal for kids to grow at different rates, and for their bodies to vary tremendously even within the same age group,” Fiona explains. “If we think about a bell-shaped curve (which indicates the normal variation within a population), we know that there is going to be a portion of kids that are smaller, many that are ‘average’ and some that are larger. But within our current climate of fear around fat, and the assumptions we make about body size and health, kids who are larger than their peers, or different in some way, can find things really difficult. So what do we do? Do we make these kids smaller, or larger, to make them more acceptable? Or do we have conversations about size diversity, about respect, about caring for each other as human beings. For me, it’s definitely the latter.”
Why is it so important for parents to set a good example early?
“Many parents say to me, ‘but we don’t have magazines! I don’t talk about diets! Why is my child talking in this way?’ The truth is that these messages can be very insidious. And at the same time, it’s incredibly important that parents take an honest look at the ways in which they speak about food, eating and bodies. Some questions I often ask parents to reflect on are:
- “If you meet a female friend in the street, how do you greet her? Do you comment on her appearance, clothes, body? If so, and your kids are with you, they may be noticing that appearance is important, and this is a way you greet and compliment your friends.”
- “If you meet a friend with children, how do you greet their children? Do you greet a little girl differently to a little boy? Even as someone who has been working in this space for well over 10 years, I have to catch myself not to comment on my friends daughters gorgeous dress/cute hair clips, beautiful fairy wings. I have to actively stop myself! Because when I do that, I am teaching this little girl that being beautiful is important, and that’s what people notice. But actually, what I want to tell her is that she is kind, she is a good friend, look at the amazing things her body can do!”
“There are some things that we can do as parent which can really help kids navigate the tricky culture in which we live. Keeping conversations open and honest is really important. If we want our kids to grow up respecting other people, then we can set the scene by avoiding criticising bodies (others, and our own) or praising body shape changes. Instead, we can make a concerted effort to speak positively about others and ourselves, focussing on the things that we value such as kindness, compassion, community contribution and respect.”
Related: Why It’s Good For Kids To Play Dirty
Dos and Don’ts to say to your child
We’ve all been guilty of these seemingly innocent comments. Even Fiona! But here’s a few to be mindful of, and clever ways to rephrase the message in a more positive way…
Don’t say: That (clothing) doesn’t suit your body.
Why: “This can lead a child to believe that there is something wrong with their body, and that to fit in (to a group, or to clothes) they have to change their body. Your comments can strongly shape the beliefs a child has about wearing (certain) clothes.”
Do Say: Which colour do you prefer? Shall we try some different styles?
Why: “Work with the body your child has, and find clothing that is comfortable, suitable for purpose, and that your child likes. Aim to put appearance second priority. If your child likes it, and will wear it, aim to help him/her feel comfortable.”
Don’t say: That food will make you fat.
Why: “Children have a limited concept about nutrition until late childhood and it’s important that we keep it simple. If we connect food and body shape, it can lead a child to make the (false) assumption that (a) this one food literally WILL make you fat (which it won’t) and (b) that fat is a bad thing. Both of these messages are really harmful, regardless of a child’s actual shape. If the child is not fat, it can lead them to fear fat. If a child is fat, it leads them to believe that they are bad as a person and in order to be a better person, they need to not be fat. These beliefs can be extremely harmful and can last a lifetime.”
Do say: “We can enjoy different foods.”
Why: “Keep it simple. Say, “there are foods that give us energy and help us grow, and others that we have because they’re delicious. It’s important that we have a balance of these foods to keep us healthy. Don’t over-complicate it. Offer a variety of foods without overtly restricting any particular foods. The foods you keep in your house, and offer to your kids are up to you. If you’re looking to learn more about nutrition, and the nutritional quality of our foods, then seek advice from a reputable source. If you have kids of different shapes and sizes, it’s important that you feed them similarly (taking into account individual needs), rather than feeding one child more, and another child less.”
“Parents, you are in an important position to send messages about bodies – your own, your child’s, and the bodies of other people. We can’t always control what our kids see and hear outside of our immediate family, but we can help our children develop resilience against the onslaught of messages that they will be exposed to throughout life.”
Fiona’s top 4 tips
- “Earlier this year, Special K undertook a Body Confidence Survey and found that 7 out of 10 Australian women have an ‘I hate my body moment’ every week. With this in mind, one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is to heal your own relationship with your body. This positivity in itself is a gift to pass on to your kids as opposed to passing on your body negativity or hatred.”
- “Recognise that all bodies are amazing!”
- “Speak respectfully about our own body and other peoples bodies. Never be mean, or call names based on other people’s appearance.”
- “Help your children enjoy and recognise what their body can do, rather than what it looks like – it will change over time, so helping them appreciate and respect it will help makes these stages easier.”