Body positivity is a movement that encourages people of all body shapes, sizes and weights to respect and accept their bodies with the goal of improving overall health and well-being.
Body image is the perceptions, feelings and beliefs a person has about their body. This includes how a person views about their body compares to society’s views and norms. Body image is influenced by how an individual feels and the reactions from people in the community.
Positive body image helps children to feel good about themselves, which flow onto every aspect of health and self-care. Positive body image is linked to positive self-worth.
When children have issues with self-worth and body image, they are more likely to be dissatisfied with their body and engage in unhealthy attitudes and behaviours around food and diet, thus increasing their risk of developing, disordered eating, eating disorders and other mental and physical health outcomes.
A child with a positive body image is comfortable with their physical appearance and is more likely to think about their body in terms of its functionality rather than its appearance.
There are many positive ways to improve your child’s body image and nurture body positivity. This section lists some key points to consider when working out the best ways to support your child in being body positive.
The goal of being body positive is to develop a strong sense of identity and self-worth that is separate from body appearance.
a) Signs Your Child May Have a Negative Body Image
Knowing the warning signs of poor body image in children can help parents identify problems early and minimise the occurrence of further body image issues.
If you answer yes to any of these questions, your child may need extra support with his body image:
- Is your child dieting?
- Does your child view himself only in terms of his physical appearance?
- Does your child use language to describe himself and his physical appearance and attractiveness?
- Does your child frequently comment about the weight of himself or other people?
- Does your child have depression and low self-esteem?
- Does your child worry about his sexual attractiveness?
b) How to Support Your Child in Being Body Positive
i. Be a positive role model for body positivity
Just like in the above section related to food, it is essential to sort out your own body image issues first or at least work on them as you support your child’s body image.
Children are more likely to have a positive body image when their parents do.
Children are impressionable and susceptible to all types of messages. Align your messages to teach them to be comfortable with their developing bodies.
You may need to work on your body image if you are:
- Always on, or going on, a diet.
- Weighing yourself.
- Expressing guilt when you eat certain foods.
- Making negative comments about the way other people look.
- Dissatisfied with your shape, size, and weight.
- Talking about your dissatisfaction with your body.
Try to be happy with your own body’s shape, size and weight. If this seems like a stretch, seek professional support from a non-dieting therapist and/or Accredited Practising Dietitian. The minimum goal is to respect your body.
Send the message to your child that health comes in all different shapes, sizes and weights.
ii. Don’t diet – Focus on health promoting behaviours
Dieting and engaging in dieting behaviours and talk sends the message to children that dieting is a normal and healthy part of life. Over time, they may start to worry about their own weight and look at cutting back on food in the same way that their parents have.
Food is food. Food is not “good” or “bad”. No one food or nutrient is the problem or needs to be restricted. All food can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. If you must categorise food in relation to its nutrient content, “every day” and “sometimes” food can be helpful.
Focus on health and well-being rather than weight.
Help your children understand why certain foods are nutritious and others aren’t in comparison, but don’t make it about weight.
Stop restricting and depriving yourself of food or overexercising. Stop calorie counting. Stop weighing yourself.
Focus on eating and moving from a place of listening to your body and honouring what it needs.
Intuitive eating is a significant part of eating well.
It is important for kids to know that being healthy is not linked to their weight alone.
Being healthy is about caring for the body appropriately to feel well. Eating a variety of nutritious foods, moving the body regularly, sleeping well, resting well, doing things and work that is meaningful and maintaining positive relationships with people is what really is important.
It is also important for children to know that exercise is for feeling fit, well and energetic. It is also for having the strength to do all the activities of daily living.
Eating and exercising is a part of life. There is no one way to do eat and move well. Understanding what your child strengths are and what he enjoys is a big part of nurturing their well-being.
iii. Celebrating differences and what makes your child unique
Teach your child to respect and accept their body and the bodies of other people regardless of appearance. It is not ok to bully people or make fun of them because of how they look.
Teach your children that being different isn’t bad, it’s good. Help them understand that their worth and everyone else’s worth is more than how a person looks or seems. This goes beyond promoting healthy body image, it teaches your child how to be a good person.
Teach your child about what his body can do and how it works. Teach him that all bodies are good bodies. Show him how to caring for his body, not to lose weight or look different.
Promote activities and sports that make your child feel good about himself and that don’t focus on his appearance. Help him to find something they enjoy.
If he can be aware of what his bodies can do, he has a better chance of being grateful for it instead of shaming it.
iv. Use appropriate language
Be aware of the impact of negative body talk around your children, about your own body or other people’s. Work on modelling acceptance of your own body. Don’t complain about your body parts or, at least, don’t share your opinions with your child.
Avoid making comments or complimenting your child or people about their appearances. There’s nothing wrong with telling your son he’s handsome, however, help him to know there’s much more to him than his appearance.
Instead, use language that is focused on a person’s unique qualities. For example, “You are very good at basketball” and “You are funny because you can always make me laugh.”
See the above section when referring to food.
v. Prepare for body changes at puberty
Puberty can be a worrying and insecure time for children.
It can be helpful to talk to your child about the body changes that occur and reassure them that it is a normal part of his development and growing up.
Aim to balance your child’s focus and ideas about his appearance by keeping family life as normal as possible.
Talk to your child about concerns he may have and help him to feel better with positive behaviours.
Children who feel ashamed of their bodies are more likely to want to change themselves with unhealthy habits. Acknowledge his concern and normalise it, however, don’t focus on his weight or body, instead focus on ways he can be healthier.
vi. Challenge societal expectations and standards
Teach your child that weight status does not determine health. In other words, thin does not mean healthy.
Teach your child that images in the media are usually unrealistic and are created to sell products and services.
Help your child to think critically about messages and images he may have seen or heard in the media and especially social media. Be especially critical of the messages and images that promote thinness or masculine ideals. Encourage your child to question and challenge Western society’s narrow beauty ideal.
vii. Limit your child’s social media activity
Below are a couple of activities you could use to help your child to understand the misleading nature in the media:
- Watch TV or show some social media posts that are talking about the unrealistic body shapes and sizes and how limited they are compared to the variety of healthy body shapes we see in the community.
- Look at fashion magazines with children and talk about how most pictures are touched up in some way. The images are not of “real” people.
These activities can help your child develop more realistic expectations about his own body.
viii. Build confidence
Place value on your child’s achievements, such as talents, skills and personality characteristics.
Teach your child that he can talk to you and it is OK to show negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and frustration.
Encourage expression of thoughts and feelings.
Encourage problem-solving. Provide opportunities for your child to build confidence in his abilities and independence.
Teach your child positive ways to cope with life’s challenges.
Encourage your child to be involved in sport. Confidence often comes with doing and focusing on what a body can do.
Encourage your child to be assertive, but polite. Allow him to say “no”. Help him to understand when he is mistreated and how to minimise this from happening again, as well as how to cope.
Listen to your child’s concerns around his body and appearance.
Don’t tease or nickname your child based on his appearance.
Above all else, tell your child he is loved and he is an important part of the family. Assigning age-appropriate tasks is an example of nurturing confidence.
c) Setting Body Positive Goals and Achieving Them
Promoting body positivity in your family is a constant conversation that should never be neglected. Helping your child to understand these important concepts can help him to love his body, along with being confident, positive and successful in a world that is trying to put him down.
Use the template from the previous section (How to Support Children in Eating Normally e) Setting and Achieving Them) to set goals around improving your child’s body image.
Again, keep it simple and specific.
Start off by listing all the things that you would like to change, using this section as inspiration.
Work out what your priorities are in order of most significant to least significant.
From here, start with identifying your first goal and the strategies that will help you to achieve the goal.
Move through the list as you achieve your goal.
Learn how to further support your child to love food and their body by accessing the FREE 3-Day Challenge – ‘Kids Love Food and Their Bodies’.