Sadly, this little girl’s thoughts are not abnormal. Four out of five 10-year-olds say they are afraid of being fat and 42% of girls in first through third grade wish they were thinner. The worst statistic is that half of girls aged 9 or 10 claim they feel better about themselves when they are dieting (1). In another survey, teen girls were asked what they would wish for if they had three magic wishes. Hypothetically, they could ask for anything in the world and the number one wish was “To lose weight, and keep it off.” (2)
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (3), with anorexia nervosa being the single deadliest mental health condition. Five to twenty percent of people diagnosed with anorexia will ultimately die from its effects on the body and mind, including cardiac complications, organ failure, and suicide (1).
With such serious statistics, it is critical that we make address body image with our children. Parents and other adult role models need to play a pivotal role in promoting a positive body image. It starts with our children and our homes. We can blame the media, Barbie, and food corporations but that doesn’t solve the issue.
Instead, here are five ways you can be a positive influence and role model for your children.
1. Think About You Own Body Image Issues
As we know, children are good imitators of their parents, so parental body image has a powerful influence on how our children feel about their own bodies. If you talk about your latest diet, how you are always trying to lose ten pounds, or how clothes make you look fat, your children will naturally think similar thoughts about their own bodies. Phrases like, “I need to lose weight to fit into this dress,” or “I don’t like the way my thighs touch each other when I walk,” or even, “That actress is so pretty and thin,” can all create negative self-image thoughts in our children. It can be very challenging to modify how we talk about our bodies but with practice we can change our talk and change the negative influence we have on our children.
Take some time to evaluate your own body image thoughts by writing down your negative thoughts that you may have. After you write them down, take some time to evaluate your thoughts by coming up with a positive counter thought. Study the positive thoughts and the next time you start to say the negative thought, stop yourself and instead repeat your positive thought. Rephrase the negative and repeat the positive thoughts.
2. Focus on Health
Losing weight may be necessary in order to increase your health but it is important to shift your focus from a specific weight number and start focusing on being healthy. Focus on delicious nutrition, fun physical activity, and how being healthy can contribute to a better quality of life. Talk about playing together as a family and enjoying regular meals, and making smart, tasty food choice. Eating healthy and maintaining a healthy weight are great goals because they give us energy and the abilities to do the things we enjoy doing. Don’t pressure your child (or yourself) to be a certain size or weight for clothes, to be like someone else, or because we think that’s what we are supposed to be but focus on health.
3. Set Eating Routines
Adults and children who eat regular meals tend to make healthier food choices and tend to maintain a healthier weight than those that graze throughout the day with no specific mealtimes. Eating as a family and setting eating routines can help establish a healthy relationship with food. It helps us understand that food is fuel for our bodies but also gives us an opportunity to enjoy food together as a family. It also gives you an opportunity to identify any food triggers or issues that your child may be going through.
Meal times should be about enjoyment, about family time, and about nutrition. You can encourage each other to eat healthy, but don’t talk about how “bad” you have been if you ate a cupcake at work, or say phrases like, “This second helping is going straight to my hips”. Make dinner table talk positive and include your children in meal planning.
4. Understand What the Warning Signs Are for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are patterns of disordered eating that often a result of a negative body image or other psychological issues. Warning signs for an eating disorder include:
- Weight loss
- Skipping meals
- Eating in secret
- Upset stomach or bloating following meals
- Frequent visits to the bathroom after meals
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Anxiety about food
- Weakness or dizziness
- An intolerance to cold
- Wearing layers of clothing in warm temperatures
These are just a few of the warning signs and individuals who have eating disorder behaviors will often try to hide feelings, emotions, and behaviors. If you do think your child is suffering from an eating disorder, please enlist help. Registered Dietitians can be a starting place and will often enlist the help of physicians and psychologists to create a team for your child.
5. Talk about Body Images
Help your child become a savvy media critic by talking about what the body images they see on television, in magazines, and on the internet. Help them understand that often times media images have been retouched or manipulated to appear different. Talk about how we want our bodies to be healthy and not look like everyone else. These can be difficult conversations to have and often it takes multiple conversations but these words can make a difference.
There are certain celebrities that recognize body image issues that the media has created and are being advocates for healthy body sizes. When you hear these stories, share and talk about them so they know that it’s not about being a certain weight or look a certain way. Encourage them to be advocates for healthy bodies.
I was one of those ten-year-old girls who wanted to be skinnier and struggled for over 17 years with eating disorder behaviors. There are still days when I have to use my positive phrases and mindfulness techniques that I have learned to make sure I don’t slip back into those negative behaviors, as I think we all have those days. But the difference now is I know how to manage those thoughts. And that’s what I want us to teach our children.
3. Smink, F. E., van Hoeken, D., Hoek, H. W. (2012) Epidemiology of eating disorders: Incidence, prevalence, and mortality rates. Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(4), 406-414.