Wow, look at those chubby thighs!
He’s so tall—I bet he’ll be a basketball player.
She needs to eat more; she’s so skinny!
Sound familiar? Chances are, you may have heard something similar used to describe your child. I know I have—and it needs to stop. I’m not sure what it is about body size that makes us feel we can openly comment on how another person or child looks, but in the end, it’s doing more harm than good.
Talking about and assigning value to body size, whether it’s your own or your child’s, can lead to changes in their body image, self-esteem, and confidence. Unfortunately, body size comments, even those that are meant to be harmless or innocent, can lead to a more negative body image in children (or adults!).
Body image refers to how you see yourself physically (in a mirror) or mentally (in your mind). It includes your beliefs about your body overall, your appearance including height, weight, and body shape, and how you feel in your body. Research shows views of body image develop at a young age and oftentimes follow us into adolescence and adulthood.
So the time to act is now. Here’s why we need to stop making comments about body size.
Improve self-esteem and confidence
Body size comments have the ability to lower self-esteem and confidence in children. They may believe their body isn’t as good because it is a certain size or that something is wrong with their body because it is bigger or smaller than some ideal body type. Low self-esteem can affect mental well-being as well as social relationships and communication skills.
Combat a negative relationship with food
A negative body image can alter the way children think about food. Instead of viewing food as nourishing and enjoyable, they may start looking at foods as good or bad, restricting certain foods or feeling guilty about eating certain foods. These behaviors can be harmful in the short and long term and will likely follow them into adulthood. Extreme views about eating and avoiding foods unnecessarily is damaging to mental health and may also lead to less-than-optimal health and nutrition.
Lower the risk of disordered eating
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve collectively experienced times of unprecedented stress and world events. However, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the number of eating disorder-related emergency department visits for teen girls nearly doubled over the last three years. While there is no one singular cause of disordered eating, negative body image and/or body dissatisfaction is often a contributor to conditions such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
There are many influences that impact our children’s body image, and most of them are at least somewhat out of our control, such as media messaging and social media. Oftentimes, the unattainable and unrealistic body ideals presented on these ever-present platforms make young children and teens feel worse about their own bodies.
Support a positive body image
While we all probably wish we could just protect our babies from the negatives of social media or other people’s unsolicited comments, that’s just not possible. Instead, think about what you can control. For the most part, you can choose what happens in your own home and how you talk about health and body size within your family. Here are a few more ways to model positive body image for your children.
Address your own body image issues
Take some time to look at your beliefs about body image, on your own, not in front of your kids. Many of us have brought our own body insecurities with us into adulthood, whether from adolescence or even the postnatal period. Can you make peace with dieting, extreme exercising, or just anything that generally doesn’t come from a place of self-love or self-respect?
Focus on health, not weight
The picture of health varies from person to person and from family to family, but whatever “healthy” looks like to you, model that for your children. Focus on being physically active to stay strong so you can all have the energy to play together and care for one another. Talk about eating food that nourishes your body so that you can learn well at school or do good work. Drop the discussion of weight or body size unless it’s medically necessary.
Find ways to celebrate all bodies
Ask children what awesome things their body allows them to do and celebrate it! Read books and consume media with a variety of different body types if possible. Show them that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that is a good thing! Discuss in an age-appropriate way that not everyone will look like them, and that’s OK.
Finally, I think it’s important to note that body image, like most things in life, isn’t definitive. Body image will likely fluctuate over the course of your child’s lifetime with some periods of more difficulty and some of more ease. The goal isn’t to take away all the negative but rather to raise children with an overall net positive body image and to give them the tools they need to deal with body image difficulties.