By Janet M. Liechty, Ph.D., LCSW-C
|Body Scrutiny and Teasing|
|Family and the Media|
|Body Image and Self-Esteem|
|What Parents Can Do to Promote Positive Body Image in Children|
|Related Web Sites|
How does body image develop? Why does one tend to ignore body image until puberty? Perhaps it’s because one doesn’t think about body image unless it’s negative or bothersome, or until it gets tangled with other health problems such as disordered eating, extreme dieting, or low self-esteem.
Yet long before adolescence, children hear and absorb countless messages and meanings related to their bodies, weight, size, shape, food, eating, and beauty from their families. Family relationships and family dynamics are the first, and arguably the most powerful, agents of socialization about the body that can be experienced.
Families can provide a strong and supportive base from which adolescents move out into the world, confront peer and social expectations, and negotiate their body image. We know that adolescents who experience their families as emotionally supportive, free of teasing about the body, and not overly concerned with physical attributes are less likely to report body image distress. High family support is also associated with decreased dieting and risky weight loss behaviors among teens.
Although it may seem that a small child is ignoring her mother’s chronic dieting, or her father’s teasing about family members’ weight, eventually she pieces together a picture of herself and her body from all she’s heard. Research shows that if bodies were constantly criticized or if the body is the object of teasing in a family, a child is more likely to develop a negative body image than a child who did not grow up with such teasing/criticism.
Much emphasis has been placed on the media’s influence, and rightly so; and yet even media messages fall on ears and eyes of a young person who has already developed a relationship to their body in the context of his or her family. The family experience creates a backdrop upon which intense feelings about body image that often arise in adolescence may get played out. Parents can help children and adolescents develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to critique and refute harmful body-related media messages and impossible thin-ideal cultural expectations that inform body image.
Some believe that vulnerability to body image distress and disordered eating is due to low overall self-esteem and inadequate stress coping mechanisms. There are many actions parents take early in life to help foster self-esteem, a sense of competence, and the ability to cope with difficult emotions.
Unfortunately, no family can grant immunity to their sons or daughters against poor body image. However, here are some things one can do to help them beat the odds.
There are concrete actions parents can take to help foster positive body image in family members.
- Show zero tolerance for body and weight-based teasing in your home.
- Instead, emphasize the complex beauty and natural diversity of body shapes, types, and sizes.
- Parents can learn to accept, affirm, and love their own bodies. Show appreciation for your body’s strength, dependability, and health.
- Notice and compliment your child’s body not for its decorative attributes but for the body’s functionality and power, such as its strength, coordination, flexibility, endurance, & energy.
- Think of yourself and your actions as teaching about body image. Model respect and self-care of your body by eating nutritious food and minimal junk food, getting enough sleep, getting regular check-ups, and exercising.
- Treat exercise and sports as something we do for enjoyment, increased energy, and strength, not to stay thin or lose weight. Remember that pleasure is always more compelling than punishment in the long run!
- Expand your definition of beauty to include an array of features, qualities, shapes, sizes, skin tones, and textures. Comment on natural beauty and inner beauty that you notice in others rather than superficial gloss.
- Value and reinforce enduring qualities of character, such as honesty, patience, tolerance, moral courage, loyalty, and effort toward meaningful goals, particularly over appearance and superficial attributes.
- Recognize that children grow unevenly in height and weight. Don’t be alarmed if they may have periods of plumpness as they grow.
- If you are concerned about your child’s weight, focus on increasing your activity level as a family and offering healthy food choices at home rather than dieting or nagging. If concerns about weight persist, talk to the pediatrician.
- Enjoy regular family time, such as meals, recreation, and hobbies that build skills, self-confidence, and knowledge together.
- High self-esteem is protective against poor body image, and is a by-product of competence. Encourage your child to develop an area of expertise or skill that is somewhat unique among his/her peers, and gives your child age-appropriate responsibilities and chores that contribute to the common good of the household.
- Critique and discuss commercials, movies and other media for messages that objectify, demean, and sexualize women and men in ways that restrict their full expression as human beings.
- Model and teach acceptance and appropriate expression of anger and conflict, and how to channel anger into specific requests and constructive action.
- Engage in advocacy for positive social change, particularly around oppressive, disrespectful, or sexist representations of groups in the media, modeling the ability to be an active agent in the larger community.
- BodyPositive: Boosting Body Image at Any Weight www.bodypositive.com/
- Campaign for Real Beauty www.campaignforrealbeauty.com/
- Dads and Daughters www.dadsanddaughters.org
- The Eating Disorders Information Network www.edin-ga.org
- Eating Disorders Coalition (Advocacy and Legislation) www.eatingdisorderscoalition.org
- National Eating Disorders Association www.nationaleatingdisorder.org
- Body Image: Loving Yourself Inside and Out www.4women.gov/bodyimage
- Love Your Body www.loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org