5 Ways To Avoid Passing on Body Image Baggage To Your Kids
Like most moms, mine occasionally gives me unsolicited advice about my appearance.
Over the years, she has politely questioned the black lug-sole loafers I wore with nice dresses, my four-sizes-too-big blazer, and the extra-messy bun I put my hair in for a family wedding.
Hey, it was the 90’s! But for the record, she was right on all three accounts.
But my mom never mentioned my weight.
She never eyed my hips and suggested a smaller helping of pasta, even when I returned home from Freshman year of college with 15 extra pounds on my 5’1” frame.
She never talked about her weight either.
She has always been petite, so maybe it’s no surprise she never griped about it. But as we know, plenty of people in all sizes of bodies agonize over goal weights, deny themselves enough food, and complain about their belly.
But in my house, weight was never mentioned. No one was on a diet. While so many of the girls I knew were counting calories and calling themselves fat, home was a safe haven away from that kind of self-loathing.
Not only did my mom never talk about her weight, but she also never talked about foods being “good” or “bad”. We almost always had home-baked goodies, potato chips, and ice cream stocked in the kitchen. We also always had home-cooked meals every night, vegetables from the garden, and fresh fruit in the crisper drawer.
But when I gained that weight in college, my mom knew I wasn’t happy about it–because I told her.
So at my request, she helped me cover the cost of seeing a local dietitian, who taught me that bagels, waffles, pizza crust, pretzels, and cereal were indeed all in the same food group, and that I’d do well to occasionally incorporate some vegetables and protein into the mix.
That dietitian also sparked my interest in nutrition, which eventually led me to become a dietitian too.
So I’m grateful.
A lot of women weren’t so lucky.
Over the years, I’ve heard stories of parents weighing and measuring food, withholding dessert, and requiring after-dinner exercise to burn off calories.
I’ve heard of households where diet talk was rampant, where weight loss plans were posted on the fridge, and where praise was given only to those with smaller portions and smaller bodies.
Research has shown that growing up in a home with dieting and negative talk about bodies and food really hurts kids, not just in the moment but also long term. People who grow up in a diet-centric environment are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their body and weight.
How to put your kid on a positive path
As a parent, you play a powerful role in your child’s views on weight, dieting, and eating (and FYI: boys can develop a negative body image and disordered eating just like girls can!). Here are five rules to raise your kids by.
1. Keep body talk positive.
Don’t talk about your weight (or your child’s weight) or bemoan the size of your thighs. Instead, talk about how your strong legs helped you hike the mountain or run a 5K.
When your child inevitably comments on someone’s body in public, acknowledge that there are all kinds of bodies–and that all bodies are good and worthy bodies. Bonus: Say enough positive things about your own body and you’ll internalize those thoughts, which just might quiet your inner critic.
Read: Life Is Too Short To Worry About a Muffin Top and How To Accept And Love Your “Body After Baby”
2. Green-light all foods.
There are no “good” foods and “bad” foods. You aren’t “good” for ordering the veggie plate or “bad” for eating pie. And kids shouldn’t grow up with a list of “good” and “bad” foods in their head. They shouldn’t connect their own goodness with what they’re eating.
These labels are especially confusing for kids, who may be genuinely afraid that they’re “bad” for liking and wanting cookies and chips. Most kids love sweets, yet parents may talk about sugar as being “bad” or kids being “good” if they ate fruit instead of cookies for dessert. (And don’t get me started on parents telling their kids that organic lollipops are “good” but regular ones are “bad”. Talk about confusing!)
If you grew up with diets and lists of foods that were off-limits, you might struggle with this, and that’s okay. This is your chance to break the cycle, and it can take some self-work.
Read: How to Legalize All Foods and How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Make Peace With Food
3. Let kids control their portion.
Offer a variety of foods at mealtime and allow your kids (if they’re able) to serve themselves, letting them eat the foods and amounts they want.
Some research has shown that restricting how much kids eat–especially “forbidden” foods like desserts and salty snacks–can backfire, causing some children to crave them even more (and to even sneak or overeat them as a result).
Demands like “eat two more bites” are also unhelpful, interfering with your kids’ natural ability to recognize their own hunger and fullness (imagine your partner insisting that you take two more bites when you’re feeling stuffed!).
Read: Should You Make Kids Take Just One Bite? and What To Do If Your Kid Won’t Eat Dinner
4. Make changes together.
Any tweaks related to food or exercise should be positive and involve the whole family–like more after-dinner walks or more fresh fruit on the counter. Nobody should be singled out with a weight-loss diet, food restrictions and rules, or extra exercise.
5. Don’t panic about your kid’s body.
Over the years, you’ll watch your child’s body grow and change–and there may be moments you worry. Talk to the pediatrician (privately), who can tell you if your child is following their growth curve–and if not, what might be going on. For instance, many kids gain pounds before inches leading up to a growth spurt.
But no matter where your child lands, it’s crucial to accept their body, which may be bigger, smaller, shorter, or taller than you thought it would be. Kids should feel loved and appreciated for who they are, not for the size of their bodies.