But here’s the thing- I’m not really writing about bodies- I’m writing about brains. There are some small changes that we can all make in our parenting or interactions with young people that can go a long way towards promoting healthy body image. Sadly, concerns about our bodies are common and can dramatically impact how well we do in the world around us.
It turns out we are not great at guessing how we look to others. Authors of a German study a couple of years ago found that about 50% of the 7000 teenage girls they interviewed who were within an average BMI range believed they were overweight. They found that their actual weight did not correlate to their perceived weight. Insecurities over bodies often have little to do with the health or functionality of that body. A young girl looking in the mirror is rarely anxious about how healthy they are- rather the larger fear is what will other people might think.
We all have insecurities. For many of the young girls I have worked with these insecurities absolutely crush them. Not looking a certain way for them translates to them not being of the same value as others around them. That is an awful way to feel. Even a good adolescence is an awkward and often lonely one- devaluing ourselves because of our appearance can be devastating during this already difficult time.
I have spoken to thousands of young people who have struggled with feeling less valuable than those around them because of how they believe they look. One question I regularly ask young people in my office is “When was the first time you remember feeling less than others because of the way you looked?” Go ahead and ask yourself that right now. Take a moment to ponder and try to put yourself back in that place just for a moment. Who was there? What was said? What directed your attention to your body?
WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU REMEMBER FEELING LESS THAN OTHERS BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU LOOK?
One of the most common time periods I end up hearing about from young people I work with is around grade four. I don’t want to terrify all parents of children in that grade or suggest we homeschool kids for those years- as that can have it’s own challenges. Rather, I think there is something about the developmental shifts that take place between the ages of 7-9 that newly position us to look outward from the family and begin to assess how we fit into to the broader world around us. Doing the math on where we stack up can lead us to be critical of things that we believe the world values- like our bodies and especially the bodies of women.
The answers to the above question often speak to this sense of finding value compared to others. Today I heard a story from a young girl about being told “by this tall skinny boy in my grade that I was short and fat.” She said this was the first time she felt less than because of her body. This was a child well within all typical ranges on the Body Mass Index and certainly did not appear unhealthy. I remember another, also reflecting on grade four, telling me that their best friend's brothers used to constantly tease them and refer to them as the “chubby” friend. Another young person told me that at about that age their mother told them “don’t compare yourself to those other girls” which she took to mean that she would never look as good as them and that how she looked was wrong.
These may seem like harmless teasing or benign advice but for the girls I was interviewing these moments stood out as times where they started to hate how they looked and sought ways to feel wanted or appreciated for their bodies. Most of these stories are told to me with tears lurking below eyes as though overflow from a deep, dark, and incredibly fragile well of sadness and insecurity. An insecurity in the truest sense of the word: a sense of not feeling safe with who you are. A sense that who you are in the most basic sense of the physical form you occupy in the world is of less value than those around you or that what you look like makes you less worthy of love, compassion, or positive outcomes than others.
It sucks. It isn’t my place to tell anyone what to think about their bodies nor would I ever willingly venture into that arena. I do however think that as parents there is a lot we can do to help our children and it starts by recognizing the fragility of body image during these early years of development. I have a nine-year-old daughter and I often leave work terrified that she will hate herself the way so many beautiful young people I speak to do. It both terrifies me and breaks my heart. I know I’m bias, but when I think of all the amazing things my daughter has to offer to the world and how incredible she is, the thought of her feeling less entitled to happiness or safety than anyone is my worst nightmare.
By no means is this an exhaustive list and I hope if you have ideas you will share them with us. Here are my five thoughts on what we can do to help our children develop healthy body images.
1. Openly communicate about the media we consume and the way bodies are portrayed in society.
From Instagram to Barbie to Doritos advertisements the female form has been commodified. The sexual value of that form is flaunted on media from all angles. Kids from a young age think they need to look “sexy” or attract attention from the opposite sex to fulfill ideal aspects of womanhood. Men think they need to find women sexy and possess sexy women as part of manhood. These ideas can consume early development of self-value when not checked, safely unpacked, and explored.
Talk to your child about the media you see- about how bodies are portrayed. Have open discussions about what media tells us. Monitor media so that media that emphasizes or includes sexual objectification is limited or viewed together with communication. Also, kids should know that media does not always portray realistic versions of bodies. There are many great resources online that show the behind the scenes look at beauty shoots and post-photoshopping that go into the images they see.
2. Don’t comment on beauty.
Even positive value is a value on attractiveness. Clever kids will understand that if they are more pleasant to be around when they look a certain way they may be less pleasant to be around when they do not. This tends not to be the message we are intending to convey but is often one that is interpreted. Talk about interests, science, politics but when It comes to things with a value on their body ask them how they value themselves and then be ready to listen.
For example, When our kids make comments like “Oh my God I’m so fat”- our first instinct is to respond with something like “NO!... you look great, you are beautiful.” In doing so we, without meaning to, add value to image. Rather than counter their comment on lack of beauty, ask open questions to have them tell us more about what they mean and how they feel. Sit with them in their feelings by acknowledging it and letting them know you are there to support them. Questions like “How do you think you look?” or “What are you worried about by not looking a certain way?” can be great ways to open up the conversation.
3. Be a good listener and not a good talker when it comes to body image.
When we talk to young people about how they feel about their appearance, ask them how they feel and listen. Listen to understand what they are saying rather than to fix how they feel. Be willing to sit with them in their feelings and resist the urge to cheer them up.
My favourite strategy for having difficult conversations is to aim for three reflections for every question. A good reflection is a statement of the core emotion conveyed in what someone says. For example, if a teen were to tell me “They all think I’m fat”a good reflection to respond with might be “feeling like your friends don’t like how you look can be really painful.” Once you have reflected back the emotion to them it may open the door to being curious about what took place that led them to feel this way.
4. Do your own work!
As adults, how we see ourselves and the value we place on things in the world around us influences development. Little comments about our own weight or any value we place on appearance will shape how our children find value in the world. Talking about eating and exercise to promote health and not just to manage appearance can be a difficult shift for us but an important one to make.
5. Be active.
Using our bodies in active ways does so much more than just helping us “slim down.” Using our bodies gives them value beyond their superficial appearance. Being active helps us feel comfortable with our bodies and how they work. It helps us feel confident in the function and value of these bodies we are lucky enough to pilot around and refine during our stint on this planet.
If you have any thoughts on things that you can do to help build healthy body image in kids please share below.