Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Body image refers to the way you feel about your body. Children who have a healthy body image are happy with how they look, how their body moves and grows, and what their body can do. Body image is an important part of a child's self-image. A poor body image can take away from a child's whole sense of self-worth.
A healthy body image grows over time, starting in babyhood and building as kids grow. It can be altered by things like puberty and the things people say. At every stage of childhood development, parents can do things to help support a child's healthy body image.
Setting a Positive Body Image
Parents influence how their children come to think about their bodies in a number of ways. These include the feelings, attitudes, and conversations that parents have about their own bodies and appearance, and their comments about their child’s body and appearance.
Babies and toddlers are naturally happy with their bodies. They love to kick their feet and play with their toes. They enjoy squirming and using their bodies to move. Once they can stand and walk, they feel proud when they can do things by themselves.
Parents help babies and toddlers feel good about their bodies when they:
give tender care and cuddling
play in ways that let babies move their bodies
play in ways that let toddlers use new skills
show how proud they feel
give plenty of smiles and praise
#1 Banish Negative Body Talk
Children learn how they should think and feel about their own bodies from listening to the adults around them. If they hear adults engaging in negative body talk ― always focusing on “problematic” body areas ― kids get the impression that bodies can never be good enough as they are. If they hear adults disparaging other people’s bodies, they learn to apply that same sort of criticism to themselves when they look in the mirror.
While it’s almost inevitable for children to absorb negative body talk from peers and other adults in their lives, parents have the power to combat these harmful messages by banishing this kind of communication at home. Parents should be mindful of the way they communicate about weight and body size with and in front of their children and refrain from making disparaging comments about bodies, which sends the message that personal value stems from physical appearance.
#2 Stop Criticising Your Own Body
Not only should parents stop speaking negatively about others’ bodies, but they should also do the same about their own. Research advises parents to be aware of their attitudes and beliefs about bodies and appearance. Try to avoid making negative judgments and comments about your own body including statements like “I’m so fat” or “I don’t have the ‘right’ body to wear X.”
As parents, we need to communicate respect for people with diverse bodies. This means working on our own body image and being mindful of how we express these feelings to our babies.
#3 Share Positive Body Image
Just as it’s important to stop negative body talk, it’s also helpful to replace those harmful messages with positive ones. Tell your child that you love them and yourself. Avoid calling them “chubby”, even as a joke.
As parents, we need to give our children permission to feel good about themselves, regardless of their body shape or size or physical appearance, so remind your children that all bodies ― including yours ― are good bodies.
#4 Emphasise Healthy Body Image Values
The research suggests committing to having a “body talk free” household, which shows children there are much more important things to discuss than how we or other people look.
When you shut down all that body talk, you leave room for healthier, more affirming, and more interesting conversations. You also send your children – right from birth – the message that what matters is not how people appear but what they do and say.
Several studies have echoed this sentiment, saying that parents should emphasise qualities other than weight. Encourage valuing aspects of self that are not related to appearance, like being a good friend.
#5 Model Healthy Behaviours
Some parents may be worried about their child’s eating behaviours or sedentary activity. But communicating these worries as critical comments about weight or appearance can be harmful and can backfire.
Instead, kids are more likely to eat nutritiously and engage in physical activity if parents foster a home environment that makes these behaviours accessible and inclusive for the whole family. This starts with babies from day one.
All parents want their children to be healthy, but this is more likely to happen if parents model the healthy behaviours they want to see in their children. This applies to infants as well.
Parents and Body Image
Practising non-judgement of others and ourselves is not easy. It takes practice. After all, we certainly aren’t socialised to be accepting or appreciative of all the different forms bodies take.
But there is hope if we start with encouraging our babies to appreciate their bodies from birth, and to listen to what their bodies are telling them about their physical and mental wellbeing. Our children should not be listening to external “noise” telling them what they should look like and how much they should weigh. They should instead be nurturing the connection between mind and body that is the key to them living full, healthy lives.
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