Aimee, an 11-year-old with a larger body, feels like she doesn’t fit in at a sleepover. To soothe herself, she binge eats cookies after the other girls fall asleep. In the morning, she feels tired and ashamed of herself.
Selena, a 16-year-old high school athlete, loves volleyball but is embarrassed by her strong, larger-than-average legs. The pain of exposing them in the team uniform is too much. She quits the varsity team shortly after her junior year begins.
Damon, a 13-year-old boy, is bullied for being “scrawny.” He is always picked last when forming teams on the playground. Despite a passion for sports, he isolates himself from social events and athletics, believing those activities have no place for him.
Body image is a universal experience. For older kids and teens, having a healthy body image is too often a major challenge. Faced with wanting to fit in, kids and teens are often pressured into looking like their peers by altering their eating behaviors. It can be difficult as adults to know just what to say when the kids in our lives struggle with body image, causing an unpleasant domino effect in their social circles.
The reality is most adults have experienced or continue to experience negative body image or disordered eating—whether dieting, thinking too much about our appearance, or comparing ourselves to others. U.S. adults tend to live with body dissatisfaction—perpetually wanting to change our bodies (“If I could only lose ‘some magical number’ pounds, then I’d finally feel good and be happy”) and having a love-hate relationship with food (“yo-yo” dieting or feeling frustrated because you do not know what to eat to have the body you feel you need/want). In fact, nearly all of us in industrialized countries were born into this way of thinking about food and our bodies. We never really question if there could be another way.
The good news is, there is another way. We can’t go back (though you can start now!)—but we can support our kids so they do not lose the time we lost thinking about food and our bodies. We can encourage our kids to have a healthy body image and positive relationship with food – even if that was not/is not our experience.
At WithAll, we equip adults with What to Say to help kids and teens feel healthy about their bodies and positive and confident with food—thereby preventing disordered eating and other harmful conditions, like anxiety, depression, unhealthy excess weight gain/loss, and more. Sign up to receive additional tips and tools to stop toxic diet and weight talk and ensure that every child gets a chance to develop healthy relationships with food and their body.
Here are just a few tips to support kids and teens in having a healthy body image and positive food relationship.
When possible, start early.
Kids begin developing their body image very early, as young as 3 and 4. Implementing a positive environment for babies and toddlers can pay dividends. However, if the kids in your life are older, it is never too late to start. Any effort to focus your words on health and well-being (instead of harmful diet and body talk) makes a difference.
Avoid singling out kids.
If a child has a larger body or a smaller body, they should never receive special treatment with food or exercise. Whatever you decide to implement as an action to promote health and well-being (not weight loss), make sure the same actions apply to all. For example, everyone eats the same dinner.
Don’t make health a “numbers game.”
Health is not dependent on appearance or weight, and it’s important that kids know that. With pressure to fit in, many adolescents feel compelled to force their bodies to be a certain size or look a certain way. When we connect health to weight, this only reinforces harmful thinking. We can show them that health and well-being are what matter.
Remember that self-worth is not skin deep.
Our value is not rooted in how we look or how much we weigh. Support kids in finding their self-worth in what really matters (their interests, how they treat others, their talents, etc.). With school starting and kids around more peers, use this time to focus on their strengths and not appearance. Check out MHA’s new Back-to-School toolkit for more information.
Let kids be kids by letting food be food.
Try not to label food as being “good” or “bad.” Doing this can make kids think only certain “good” foods are OK, which might promote disordered eating. It can shame a child if you label a food they love as “bad” or “unhealthy.”
Make movement joyful.
Help kids maintain the joy of movement by creating opportunities for the physical activities they enjoy. Avoid teaching them that exercise is about losing weight or avoiding gaining weight, but instead is a way to help manage energy and to boost endorphins to feel good.
You will not always get it right and that is okay.
Do your best to focus on health and well-being, for yourself and the kids that look up to you, knowing you will make mistakes (because we all do). Kids will notice your intentions.
Lisa Radzak is the executive director of WithAll, which helps adults, through its What to Say initiative, use their words and actions to teach kids that health and well-being—not weight, appearance, or BMI—is what matters most.