Today I’m sharing insights from Dr. Jennifer O’Connor, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, on how to raise your kids with a healthy body image. O’Connor, based here in San Clemente, is a very wise and very good friend of mine. I’ve spent countless hours picking her brain while pushing our kids in the swings or sharing wine at happy hour, and have always felt tremendously blessed for her guidance on this tricky issue.
While I’m relatively knowledgeable about how and why to provide my children with healthy food, I know far less about raising them with healthy minds. So I’ve had some major “aha” moments while hearing O’Connor’s perspective on how to promote health in our homes, and here is both the good and the bad news: it starts with us.
“Never underestimate the extent to which you lead by example,” says O’Connor. “Our children do what we do, not what we tell them to do.” So if we are unhappy with our bodies, our children will become unhappy with their own.
The problem with body dissatisfaction
First, it starts young: According to one study, girls as young as three become “emotionally invested in the thin ideal.” And a U.K. study found that children as young as eight expressed unhappiness with their bodies.
Second, it has serious repercussions that often last a lifetime. “When we have strong feelings of shame about any aspect of ourselves,” says O’Connor, “it leads to unhealthy patterns of behavior and unhealthy patterns of relating to others.” She explains that shame is a powerful emotion, and has been linked to substance abuse, eating disorders, abusive relationships, and perfectionism.
Furthermore, children who obsess about their body weight are, contrary to what we may assume, at greater risk for excessive weight gain than those who feel good about their body size and shape.
Read on for O’Connor’s top tips on how to demonstrate appreciation and respect for all body shapes within your home, enabling your children to become confident and healthy, and accept themselves for who they are.
#1 Teach respect and tolerance for body diversity
“Just as we teach our children that people are born with a variety of skin colors, we must also teach them that people are born with a variety of body shapes and sizes, and that no size or shape is better or healthier than another,” says Dr. O’Connor. If we fail to explicitly teach respect for body diversity, children will readily accept the cultural message that thin bodies are good bodies and big bodies are bad bodies.
It’s not surprising that studies have shown that viewing media images of thin women decrease girls’ own healthy body images, leading to increased concern about body weight and a propensity toward eating disorders. But what should we do about this? We can’t completely prevent the media from infiltrating our children’s lives.
O’Connor suggests countering this message by being “active in de-programming our children from the very powerful, prevalent and damaging cultural message that thin bodies are good bodies and big bodies are bad bodies.”
A terrific resource for young children is the book Your Body is Awesome by Sigrun Danielsdottir. And a strategy for older children is to help them identify anti-fat attitudes in the media and explicitly encourage tolerance and respect.
#2 Demonstrate respect and compassion for your own body
“Young children are developing a relationship with their own bodies,” says O’Connor. She emphasizes that if we criticize our bodies, and if we speak harshly about ourselves, they will replicate this in their relationship with their own bodies.
“Our children will learn to treat their own bodies in much the same way that we treat ours,” O’Connor says. “So be kind and gentle when you speak about your body or the bodies of those around you.”
According to Maryann Jacobsen‘s How to Raise a Mindful Eater, we must actively work to help kids appreciate their bodies and have compassion for themselves. This compassion doesn’t just make our children feel good; it literally keeps them healthy. She argues that children who feel good about their bodies are more likely to maintain healthy, sustainable habits, and increases chances that children will eat intuitively.
“The healthiest people practice self-compassion when something they wanted to accomplish doesn’t go the way they hope. This gives them the mental clarity and emotional distance to… have the best shot at getting it right the next time,” she writes.
#3 Do not equate thin with healthy
It is important to understand that weight is not a direct measure of health: a healthy body is. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pediatricians take the spotlight off of weight, focusing on healthy living and healthy habits instead. As a result, it is best to avoid discussing body weight at home, even in regard to a parent’s own weight.
O’Connor also recommends to avoid discussing your weight or size, or the weight or size of others. She points out that “pursuits of thinness and over-valuation of thinness in our lives as parents often lead to children developing low self worth and self consciousness about their own bodies.”
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian obesity researcher, says to avoid weighing your children outside of their annual pediatrician appointments. “If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, don’t rely on a number to tell you or your child how he or she is doing,” he writes on his blog Weighty Matters. “Simply measuring weight does nothing to help you understand how it got there, nor will it do anything to help it go away, but doing so may make your children hate themselves just a little bit more each time you put them on that scale.”
#4 Help your children have fun in their bodies
O’Connor advises against pushing “exercise” or “getting fit” with your children. “Move your body in fun and enjoyable ways, and invite them to explore these forms of fun body movement with you,” she says. Her suggestions include dancing, exploring nature, and playing. “Help them find joy and freedom in their movement.”
This is especially important because research shows that kids who have fun being active with their families grow up to become adults who enjoy being active.
“I avoid the term exercise,” she says, “because so many adults associate exercise with the goal of altering one’s body shape or size.” Instead, movement should be about having fun; it should be about the joy of discovering what our bodies are capable of. “It shouldn’t be about slimming down or toning up.”
#5 Protect your children from diet talk and body shaming
“The truth is, healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” O’Connor says, “and healthy minds embrace that truth.” She emphasizes the importance of sheltering your children from talk about diets, weight loss goals, or body dissatisfaction. According to O’Connor, we should also establish these strong boundaries with extended family and friends, explaining to them that we are striving to raise children who grow up with healthy body images.
“You want your children to grow into adults who won’t lose precious minutes, hours, days, and weeks of life pointlessly trying to reshape the beautiful bodies they were borth with, the healthy bodies they were blessed with,” she says. And unfortunately, these feelings are overwhelmingly prevalent in adolescent girls: in one study, 44% believed they were overweight and 60% were actively trying to lose weight; this is despite the fact that the majority of these young girls were within normal weight ranges.
Even when weight loss is recommended for a child, Jacobsen explains that trying to fix your body through food does not address root causes of eating or unnecessary weight gain. In fact, it increases the risk of stigma, body dissatisfaction, eating without hunger, and dieting.
And Freedhoff writes that it is unfair to discuss weight loss with younger children, because they are not able to control most of the factors that influence their weight anyway. “They don’t do the grocery shopping. They don’t cook the meals. They don’t set the example. They live the lives their parents teach them to live. They’re life’s passengers, not the drivers,” he explains.
In My Home
My daughter is only two, but I’m already incredibly nervous about navigating body image issues with her. I want to shelter her from all of this, especially when I look at her now, so proud of her big round belly, and so enamored with what her body can do, as she learns to run, jump, and dance. And I know my boys aren’t immune to body dissatisfaction either, even though they’re probably less susceptible than my daughter. I already hear talk of “big muscles” and see them compare their (tiny) biceps.
And even if, God willing, all of my children remain confident in their own body shape and size, I want them to view the diversity of others’ bodies with respect, and be the first to defend a classmate bullied for being too large or too small.
So I feel blessed to have Dr. O’Connor as a friend and resource to give me tools to use in our home. Upon her recommendation, a few tactics I have implemented include the following: 1) Phrases we use in our house are “we don’t talk about other people’s bodies” and “all bodies are good bodies,” especially when the word F-A-T is used in a book or on a T.V. show, or even comes out of one of our children’s mouths. 2) I try to practice Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility when feeding my children, which O’Connor highly recommends, because it promotes respect for their internal hunger cues and acceptance of their natural body size. 3) While my feelings about my own body could certainly be improved, I try to project confidence and satisfaction in front of my kids (who knows, maybe someday I’ll start to feel it too). And although I try to “tone up” a little when my skinny jeans start feeling snug, I’m discreet about these efforts, especially now that my kids are getting older.
I can only imagine how much more challenging these issues will become as my children age, but O’Connor’s five strategies are a solid starting point to help us build a good foundation in these early years. Please comment below if you have any questions for Dr. O’Connor, and I will do a follow-up interview. I know I personally could stand to learn a lot more on this issue!