I looked through stacks of old photo albums before we moved and I discovered something. I used to be skinnier. Also, I was so cute! What strikes me as I look through old photo albums is that I never felt cute or felt skinny at the time. I was always dissatisfied and wished I could change any number of things about the way I looked.
If I could go back and tell the younger me one thing, I would give myself permission to feel joyful in my skin. I wasted so much time coveting the bodies of the models in Seventeen or feeling ashamed of some part of my body. I wish I had the gift of perspective that would have allowed me to be easier on myself.
Because of my recent revelation, I’ve been thinking about the mindsets I want to cultivate in my children. I want my children to feel good in their skin, however they look. I want them to say Yes! to swim parties without worrying about what they look like in a bathing suit. I want them to deeply love themselves, not in spite of their bodies or even because of their bodies, but because they are comfortable being who they are.
I want for them to have a healthy body image.
In a world overflowing with images, how do we help children to embrace a healthy sense of their physical bodies?
1. Love yourself. I know with 100% certainty that my future-self would come back to my present-day self and see my beauty, so why would I waste any time being dissatisfied? So I have bags under my eyes. So I can’t fit into the same pants I fit into 10 years ago. So I don’t have a perfectly toned body.
Every time I dress or see myself in the mirror, I have a chance to affirm that it’s okay to feel good in my skin. If we can embrace ourselves, we give our children permission to embrace themselves – exactly as they are.
2. Display a wide vision of beautiful. I remember an “ah-ha” moment during a college art-history class. We were studying famous impressionist paintings, and I noticed a very different collection of beautiful bodies. The figures didn’t match the definition of beauty that I was used to. My big enlightenment? The idea of beauty is culturally and historically constructed rather than some abstract “thing.”
The media tends to promote a single version of beautiful, so we have must be diligent to help our children see a beauty that its fuller than this very narrow definition. What is visible becomes reality for children, so we must continually look to widen the ways we represent beauty in our homes and classrooms.
Consider adding photography and museum books along with two and three dimensional pieces of art that demonstrate many different kinds of skin colors, ages, sizes, abilities, and styles of dressing (just to name a few) to spaces where young children spend their days.
3. Watch how you “watch what you’re eating.” Our obsessions with food and bodies can quickly become our children’s. When making food selections talk about variety instead of on the fact that a particular food is “good” or “bad.”
In our family, we have a phrase we repeat with our children: “All foods in the right balance are good for us.” Food gives us nutrients we need to grow, and food is also a source of pleasure and community. What we have to have is variety. Too much of a single thing is always unhealthy. As adults, we have to be particularly aware of how we talk about certain foods and groups of foods with children.
4. Talk about bodies outside of the context of beauty. Our bodies help us run, jump, and climb. Our bodies help us breathe air, digest food, smell flowers, and pump blood. Our bodies allow us to snuggle, hug friends, bandage wounds, and kiss those we love. Our bodies allow us to enjoy the beauty of nature. Talking about all of the things our bodies do besides just looking a particular way is helpful to forming a strong body image.
In my in-home program and with my own children, we often “talk to our bodies” saying things like, “Thank you body for helping me climb up all those stairs.” or “Thank you body for letting me figure out how to put my socks on.” or “Thank you lungs for breathing. You’re giving oxygen to my body so I can grow!” As cheesy as it sounds, our children have developed a solid understanding about the ways their bodies work, and a deep sense of gratitude for the work their bodies do.
What about you? What do you do to help nurture your child’s body image?
Want more? Read on…
- “Why I’m A Body Image Activist” by Melissa A. Fabello on Everyday Feminism (Video)
- “Boys and Body-Image Tips” by Caroline Knorr on Common Sense Media (Article)
- “Healthy Body Image in a World with Chronic Dysmorphia” by Amanda Morgan on Not Just Cute (Article)
- “Kids Dealing with Negative Body Image? Don’t Judge, Listen” on National Public Radio (13 minute audio, or written transcript)