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How to Help Kids Develop Healthy Body Image

This article was originally published on Advocates for Youth's Birds and Bees Blog.  

A few weeks ago a friend of mine was in Walgreens with her six-year-old son when, somewhere in the stomach remedy aisle, he told her that the kids at school had started making fun of him because his penis was too big.  Apparently, two boys in his first grade class had commented on it during a trip to the bathroom and later pointed him out to other boys in the cafeteria by saying “that’s the kid who has the big penis.” Tempted to grab Maalox off the shelf and swig it right there, my friend resisted the urge to leave it at “someday that will make you happy and popular,” and attempted a conversation about body image, self esteem, and teasing.  

By her retelling of the story, I think she did a really good job especially for being blindsided in a public place. It’s a difficult conversation to have and I’m sure we can all imagine how it could have been even more difficult. What if her son were older and the teasing was about his penis being too small?  What if it was her daughter and the body parts in questions were her breasts (whether they were being called too big or too small they are far more visible)? And, of course, it wouldn’t have had to be about reproductive organs at all to be a self-esteem issue; plenty of young people get made fun of because of their body shape or size.

Self-esteem and body image are probably one of the hardest things to deal with as a parent. For one thing most of us are still grappling with body image issues of our own. For another, our society bombards our children from day one with images of what they “should” look like. From the princess with the skinny waist and the prince with enormous arms to the swimsuit models with the ridiculously long torsos and their counterparts with six-pack abs; young people of all ages are being told that there are strict criteria that they need to live up to in order to be considered beautiful. And moreover, positive body image isn’t necessarily something we can teach, it’s something we as individuals have to learn to feel. As parents, those are always the hardest issues.  There is only so much we can do, but we can do some things.  Here are a few ideas:

* Keep our own body image issues to ourselves.
This one has always been hard for me.  As someone who has gained and lost the same 20 pounds numerous times in the last decade, I have a closet full of clothes of varying sizes and a head full of issues about how I look. When I’m at the skinny end of the closet, I’m pleased with my reflection but when I have to dig for the bigger pants I tend to get upset. I have worked very hard to keep this (or at least the reasons behind it) from my daughter. Even if I’m visibly dissatisfied with how I look, I never say “I feel fat” in front of her (usually I blame the pants when what I’m really upset about is the body that I’m trying to get into them).

That said, as she grows up and invariably decides that something about her appearance is off, I think it will be helpful for her to know that I haven’t always loved the way I looked.  Of course, when we do discuss it, I will try to emphasize the times when I’ve worked to make the best of it (whether it was trying to lose weight to be healthier or trying to look and feel good regardless of the number on the scale)  instead of the times when I just berated myself for having gained the weight again and took no proactive steps.

* Tell our children how beautiful they are, early and often.
To this day, my father calls me beautiful almost like a nickname; “yes beautiful,” he’ll say when I call, “what can I do for you?”  And while his opinion of my looks was completely invalid throughout my adolescence, I do believe that somewhere in the back of my brain knowing someone thought of me as beautiful was helpful.  Which is why, I have continued the tradition with my daughter.  In fact, I tell her how beautiful she is with great regularity.  

A week ago or so, she was running around the house naked and I was struck by the elegance of her miniature body. My first instinct was not to say anything because she was naked and it somehow seemed inappropriate.  But then I realized that it was not just appropriate but important, so I told her. The next day her grandmother was visiting, and Charlie, who was once again running around naked, said, with an amount of pride that brought tears to my eyes, “Juby, my mommy things I’m bee-you-ti-ful when I’m naked.”

Now I realize that she’s only 3 ½ and that the peer pressure to look a certain way has not yet set in, but I’m hopeful that knowing somewhere deep down that her family thinks she’s fantastic looking will help even in the worst years of puberty.

* Help them remember that health is more important than the beauty myths they are being fed.  

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, but only a select few of them are going to be peeking out at us from newsstands and televisions. We need to help our young people be critical consumers of media and make sure they realize that the images of perfect people with straight white teeth, perky breasts, and bulging muscles are not just not normal but often not real.  Telling them about, or better yet, showing them the magic of Photoshop may go a long way toward diminishing the impact of magazine covers and billboards.

* We should also emphasize that the most important thing is being healthy and happy with your body.  

Weight is an issue, we can’t pretend that it’s not, but we should emphasize that this is not because of how one looks, but because being over or underweight does impact long-term health. This is why, when my husband decided recently that is was time to drop a few pounds, we bought an elliptical and talked to Charlie about the importance of exercise and good blood pressure instead of pot bellies and smaller jeans.

By the way, when we do talk to our kids about how all bodies look different and how health is the most important thing, we can’t  forget about genitals and breasts. We should point out that shape and size vary from person to person, that they are all normal, and, when talking to older kids, that they do not impact sexual performance or pleasure.

* Finally, remind them not to make fun of anyone else.  

While we hate to think that our own children might ever be on the opposite side of the taunting, clearly someone’s kids are. So, it is important to remind young people that it is never okay to make fun of anyone else for how they look. Using all the same messages we said when we wanted them to feel good about themselves, we have to talk about how hard it can be to be made fun of and how we all have to help each other people feel good  about ourselves.

Hopefully, some of these simple steps can help us raise a generation of people with fewer body image issues than we have. And, who knows, when that generation starts being in charge of the media we see, maybe their kids will be given magazines and televisions shows that celebrate more realistic and varied images of what it means to be bee-you-ti-ful.


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