First, I must confess that this is a deeply personal post. Although the advice given is meant to help those with kids (or those who are close to kids) to avoid creating and perpetuating body image issues, I am also aiming to air out some grievances I have with people in my past and present, both in my real life and online.
We hear a lot about “body shaming,” as a buzz topic, therefore I’d like to explain what I mean by this. Body shaming isn’t motivational or funny. Simply put, it is making someone feel ashamed of their body (whether intentional or not.) Kids are especially susceptible to this type of speech, and it breaks my heart that so many parents and other caregivers pay no mind to the feelings of children when it comes to their bodies. In many cases it seems as if it’s completely ok to point out what are considered to be flaws, right in front of the child, without any regard for how this makes the child feel.
A fictional example that I find to be quite poignant is that of Olive in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). She is a 7 year old girl who is obsessed with Miss America and carries some extra weight. While in a diner, the family is ordering a meal and they are given a $4 per person limit to spend on their selection. With this in mind, Olive decides to have waffles and ice cream. Her mom questions her about having ice cream for breakfast, to which she replies, “you said $4,” and her mom says ok, you’re right and moves on. However, her father decides to press the issue, telling her that ice cream has a lot of fat in it, which becomes fat on her body, and that if she eats a lot of ice cream she will in fact become” big and fat,” but if she doesn’t eat ice cream she’ll be “nice and skinny.” He continues to ask her if the women in the pageant are fat or skinny, and of course the girl says they’re skinny, so her dad says, “well I guess they don’t eat a lot of ice cream.”
Where do I begin? While I am absolutely for being honest with children and teaching them accurate biology and healthy eating habits, I am not at all for this approach. Making a seven year old girl feel ashamed for wanting ice cream by telling her she will “be nice and skinny,” if she chooses something else is not only harmful, it’s disrespectful and hateful. Parents need to stop belittling their children and making them feel bad for their choices. Rather, we should guide our children through respectful discussion and education, helping them to make healthy food choices and getting outside to play rather than comparing them to pageant contestants (or ultimate fighters, or ballerinas, etc.)
Yes, obesity is an issue we shouldn’t ignore, but so is fat shaming or body shaming. Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are most often triggered by outside circumstances, and parents who shame their children for having a big butt, or crooked feet, or hair in what are actually completely normal places are contributing to these debilitating conditions.
I urge you, if you have ever said anything that may have made your child to feel ashamed, please know that you don’t have to give up. You can repair your relationship and have a healthy, happy kid who knows they are loved. All it takes is connection and real, honest communication. If, on the other, hand, you haven’t uttered disrespectful or downright mean things about your kid (within their hearing or otherwise) then just make sure that you keep it up! Body image is such a difficult thing to repair as an adult; it is so much easier to cultivate a positive image in children.
Sometimes, we as parents say things without thinking, and without meaning any harm. I have caught myself overusing “she’s so cute and little,” and “she’s got tiny hobbit feet.” While my one-year old has absolutely no clue what I’m saying, I have to begin making the effort now to instill a positive image in my child rather than letting the years go by and slipping up once she can understand everything I’m saying. Seemingly harmless phrases can be crushing, and we have to remember that even the youngest children have big feelings, too.
For further reading, might I suggest:
This article explores the issue of body shaming, as well as dealing with your own body image issues.
The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders: Supporting Self-Esteem, Healthy Eating, and Positive Body Image at Home