Things to keep in mind when discussing body image with your little ones.
By Gabby Cushman
Body image is something the majority of people will struggle with throughout their lives. As an adult, you may feel similar about your body as you did when you were younger. Body negativity can often be linked back to experiences we had during childhood, whether it involved the media we consumed, the passing comments our friends and family made, or just noticing the differences between our bodies and others. That’s why it’s necessary to encourage children to practice healthy thinking patterns concerning their bodies. Two approaches to body acceptance are “body positivity” and “body neutrality.” They are defined as follows:
Body positivity: the idea that all people deserve to have a positive body image, regardless of how society and popular culture view ideal shape, size, and appearance. It’s not just challenging sizeism but also recognizes judgments based on race, gender, and disability.
Body neutrality: de-emphasizes our appearance/physical attributes to focus on what our bodies can do for us and the objective facts about our bodies as opposed to image-based claims. Body neutrality can be helpful on days when it's difficult to feel love towards your body and can be used as a dual approach with body positivity.
Here are four tips to help encourage kids to engage in body positivity and body neutrality!
#1- Start with practicing body positivity/neutrality yourself
Children pay attention to the way we talk about ourselves. I remember many distinct instances from when I was little where the adults in my life talked about their appearance negatively or associated the way their body looked with unhealthy ideas about food and diets. Without realizing it, I began to look at my own body and the food I was consuming similarly because it was what I was surrounded by.
It can feel natural to make self-deprecating jokes about ourselves when feeling insecure about our appearance. However, it’s important to practice talking about our bodies respectfully and appreciatively in front of kids. Try not to express guilt over missing a workout or eating certain foods. Modeling body positivity and neutrality around your children can even lead to a better body image for yourself!
#2- Make sure to include gender expression and disability in the discussion
Although our modern-day idea of body positivity originates from the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s, it’s also essential to include trans, nonbinary, and disabled bodies in the conversation. Beauty norms are heavily gendered, with masculine and feminine ideals fitting into rigid boxes. This heavily impacts transgender and nonbinary individuals who already struggle with matching their gender expression with the gender identity they feel. Recent research suggests that trans and nonbinary populations have much higher rates of disordered and restrictive eating than their cisgender counterparts. Make sure to touch on gender dysphoria and gender expression while discussing body positivity with children and how they can affect someone’s self-image.
Disabled bodies are often absent from body positivity conversations. Yet disabled people can struggle with complex feelings around the appearance and abilities of their bodies that non-disabled people may not realize. Living in a world that does not accommodate your body is such a unique experience that can lead to feelings of negativity, shame, and confusion. Also, there is a severe lack of disabled representation in media, especially regarding characters who are supposed to be seen as “desirable.” Be mindful that your encouragement of body positivity and neutrality does not come from an ableist place. Although body neutrality can focus on what our body does for us, it’s vital not solely to focus on that aspect but also emphasize acceptance, uniqueness, and how our bodies are proof that we exist regardless of how we exist.
#3- Encourage physical activity/movement that feels best to them
Exercise can be a complicated topic to approach regarding body image in children. Although we may want to encourage our kids to engage in healthy physical activity, emphasizing specific ways to exercise can lead to unhealthy associations between exercise and physical appearance. It’s best to encourage kids to be active in ways that feel comfortable for them and their bodies. There are many hobbies children can engage in that provide physical activity, such as biking, dancing, skateboarding, karate, soccer, and more. You can also incorporate fun, healthy activities to participate in with your little ones, such as family or class walks. Try focusing on how movement can make kids feel instead of focusing only on how it affects their health and the size of their body.
#4- Create a safe space for your little ones to talk about their body image with you
It’s incredibly easy for children to internalize and suppress negative feelings about their bodies. You may not realize it, but they’re faced with comparison, bullying, social expectations from their peers, and the need to belong on a frequent basis. The first memory I have of feeling intense body negativity was when I was only ten, and a supposed friend of mine pointed out how my body was the biggest in our friend group. I suddenly became hyper-aware of my body, how my clothes looked on me, and how much smaller my classmates’ and my favorite TV characters’ bodies were compared to mine. This progressed into further insecurity as I hit puberty, began experiencing crushes, and joined a dance studio where my body felt significantly different than most of my competitive team members. Throughout this struggle, I never shared these persistent negative thoughts about my appearance with the adults in my life. This was through no fault of their own but because society encouraged avoidance of honest conversations about our body image and enforced toxic positivity - “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!”
You can’t always prevent your kids from experiencing bullying or being influenced to feel a certain way about their bodies by social media and television. However, you can encourage them to be honest with you about how their body image currently is. It’s not always easy to maintain a positive view of their bodies; sometimes, even a neutral approach may feel impossible. Affirm that these feelings are normal and perfectly okay to experience. Ask them to elaborate on their feelings towards their body - is there a specific reason they’re feeling like that? How do their feelings about their body affect their daily mood? Is there anything that needs to be changed (outside of their physical appearance) to help with these feelings? Facilitating this type of conversation will teach your little ones to express any issues with their body image instead of carrying it within them.
Body image, body positivity, and body neutrality will always be complex and challenging topics to approach, especially with children. There are many intersections and nuances to be considered to make sure we’re promoting a positive view of all bodies. Hopefully, these four tips will help you feel more confident to start this conversation with your children and encourage helpful thinking patterns about their bodies.
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