With Loving Eyes: Fostering Your Child’s Positive Body Image

happy mother and daughterWhen I was a child, I believed my mom was the most beautiful person in the world. She was just as comfortable wearing lipstick and mascara as she was without makeup at all. My memories are of her laughing and smiling. We have a home movie of her playing basketball with my older sisters. She let me use her bathrobe on my snowman.

She had her moments when she’d lose her cool, of course. But to me, she was as close to perfect as a mother could get.

It wasn’t until I was older that I noticed how concerned she was with her weight, and how she would compare herself to others. “Am I as large as that woman?” she’d ask, pointing to a stranger at the grocery store. I hurt for her in those moments. I had never even thought of her as overweight; she was my mom and I loved her dearly.

Even as adults, many of us are intensely focused on what others think about our bodies. Maybe you imagine that everyone who sees you is silently criticizing your muffin top or the shape of your thighs. Maybe, like my mom, you compare yourself to others, judging who is bigger than you and who is smaller. Perhaps you constantly think of your shape and size and chastise yourself for eating that cookie at lunch or skipping a day at the gym.

The thing is, I’m pretty certain what you focus on is a far cry from what others are noticing. The people who matter in your life recognize so many other things in you. To them, you’re a friend, a coworker, a fellow PTA mom.

Children in particular don’t focus on how much someone weighs or what size pants he or she wears. What is important to them it is how you interact, how you play, and how you take care of them. When you hug them, they’re not noticing your squishy belly; they’re feeling loved.

It is easy to get caught up in our body image. So many minutes of the day are wasted when we focus on our size, weight, or other physical attributes. Our mood depends on the number on the scale or if we fit into a certain pair of jeans. We can become depressed and anxious and preoccupied. All the while, we’re missing out on life.

I became aware of how self-conscious my mother was about her size when I reached my teens. Like many women, she never wore a swimsuit. She drank Slim-Fast and Tab diet soda. But she also played tennis and hiked with us. She watched us put on plays and bought us peanuts to feed Fluffy the squirrel. She read us bedtime stories and stayed with us when we were sick. When I think of my mom, those are the times that stick out in my mind. My mom was many things to me: smart, funny, warm, kind. Her weight didn’t matter one bit. It still doesn’t.

It is easy to get caught up in our body image. So many minutes of the day are wasted when we focus on our size, weight, or other physical attributes. Our mood depends on the number on the scale or if we fit into a certain pair of jeans. We can become depressed and anxious and preoccupied. All the while, we’re missing out on life.

There is a great deal of focus on positive body image lately. There’s a wonderful movement toward using bigger-sized models; some stores are using more average-sized or even plus-sized mannequins. It’s very possible that the next generation of children will grow up in a culture that’s less obsessed with body size than we are.

Like so many things, though, feeling good about one’s body, no matter the size, begins in early childhood. Parents have much influence over how their children feel about their bodies. There are several things that you can do to help your children love their bodies.

  1. Don’t use the word “diet.” Instead, talk about eating healthier.
  2. Speak positively about your own body. Tell your kids how your legs are getting stronger and they help you run or how you exercise because you want your body to be healthier.
  3. Do not talk about your kids’ size or weight. Don’t mention that it looks like they’re gaining weight or looking a bit pudgy. Don’t tell them they can’t have dessert because they’re getting too big. Instead, talk about how their bodies allow them to jump high and kick a ball, how it’s important to give our bodies good food to help us be stronger and grow.
  4. If you’re struggling with your weight, do not involve your children. Talk about your struggles with a friend or partner where your kids cannot hear.
  5. Expose your kids to stories and pictures of strong women and men, regardless of their size.
  6. Point out your kids’ many strengths that have nothing to do with looking cute or being pretty.

As parents, we have the responsibility to both model and teach our children how to have a positive body image, and it needs to begin when they’re young. It requires us to monitor our own sense of ourselves and deal with our insecurities, which can be uncomfortable. But the commitment to gaining a more positive sense of self can also be healing and empowering. It’s a gift to the next generation.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, therapist in Columbus, Ohio

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    April 21st, 2015 at 6:48 AM

    Great article and advice for parents.

  • Charla

    Charla

    April 21st, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    It IS a great article. I wish that I had not wasted so much of my youth worrying about what I looked like in comparison to other people and that I had never said things like that in front of my own daughter. I would never want to crush her self esteem but I look back now and realize that I probably did a little bit of that whenever I would compare myself to other women. How did that then make her feel if she was then compared to me?

  • Kell

    Kell

    April 21st, 2015 at 4:39 PM

    Oh but believe me if they hear you harp about weight all the time then this is what they will start to see in other people and we need less emphasis on looks in our society, not more.

  • Harriett

    Harriett

    April 22nd, 2015 at 1:32 PM

    Even for as much as I try to keep things like this out of everyday conversation there are still going to be those times when the subject comes up.

    And I think that on some level it is one that needs to be had with our children for they need to understand how important it is to take care of themselves and be happy and healthy.

    But how do you do that without looking at your own self critically and admitting that there are some changes that you need to make too?

  • Natasha Daniels

    Natasha Daniels

    April 23rd, 2015 at 6:54 AM

    This is a great post. I think all too often it is easy to get caught up in our body image and we forget how it impacts our children.

  • Freda

    Freda

    April 23rd, 2015 at 12:27 PM

    Why not talk to your kids about what you think makes all of you beautiful instead of only letting yourself see the flaws? we all have flaws, there is denying that but if these are the only things that we are going to focus on then… how shallow does that really make us and how are we ever going to learn to love ourselves thinking about things that way? It’s sad that God put us on this earth to celebrate and use our bodies and most of us only think about the ways that it lets us down.

  • Terrell

    Terrell

    April 24th, 2015 at 9:44 AM

    We really are the very first people that children will take their cues from. For a while they will listen to what we say and take it to heart. They will believe the things that we believe and will even believe the things that they THINK that we believe whether it is true or not. This is why you have to be so careful because if anything that you do or say implies to your child that you don’t like who you are or who they are then they are very much going to take this to heart.

  • Cyndi

    Cyndi

    April 25th, 2015 at 11:32 AM

    Reading this was so powerful to me. It was the reminder that I needed that makes me want my child to think about the good things about me when I am gone.

    I never want her to only think of the things that I was unhappy about, but instead I want her to remember the things that made me smile, and remember me smiling.

  • CODY

    CODY

    April 25th, 2015 at 1:35 PM

    The real challenge is changing how society as a whole sees us and what they think is normal and what actually is. We can’t all be supermodel material and I think that it is terrible that everywhere you look there are the notions that if you are not that then you are not good enough. It is easy to shake some of that off as an adult but for kids the challenge is so much greater.

  • Shayne

    Shayne

    April 26th, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    Our number one job as a parent is to raise good kids who feel good about themselves. Everything else, like studying and making good grades and being a success later in life? All of that stems mostly from doing that before mentioned number one job. There is no way that a kid is ever going to do any of the other without having a strong set of parents behind them who love and value them for who or what they are.

  • Porras B

    Porras B

    April 29th, 2015 at 11:55 AM

    I saw the article published by the guardian “Teen liposuction – narcoaesthetics in Colombia”.

    Young beautiful girls age 15 are already having liposuction and breast implants.

    When imposed cultural beauty cliches are part of their daily lifes in a region impacted by drug cartels (like Medellin, Cali, Pereira – in Colombia), this is are unfortunately the models girls (of any social level – poor, middle and high class) grow up with.

    A colombian friend living in New York

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    Katherine Fabrizio

    April 30th, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    I love the way you started this article describing how you experienced your mother. The whole article was helpful and a great reminder of how to keep in mind that our children will do as we do, not as we say. Thank you.

  • Steevie Jane Parks

    Steevie Jane Parks

    May 4th, 2015 at 7:02 AM

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and plan to share it with friends and colleagues and clients! We need more advice like this vs. classifying young children as having eating disorders before the disorder ever develops. If parents read these kinds of articles, it is highly unlikely that their children will ever develop disordered eating behaviors!

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