Are my thighs bigger than hers are? How many calories are in that birthday cake? Why does no one on TV look like me? Do I need to go on a diet? Is this skirt too tight? How much does liposuction cost? A tummy tuck? Is that something I need? Why can’t I stop eating chips? Have I eaten too many? What is wrong with me?
Am I too fat to be successful and worthy and loveable in this world?
These problems are all too familiar to most women – and unfortunately, they are no longer the exclusive domain of adults and teenage girls. In a recent study, over half of girls and a third of boys aged six to eight chose an “ideal body size” that was thinner than their own. An alarming one in four had engaged in dieting by the age of seven.
As someone with a young son and a daughter on the way, these statistics terrify me. They break my heart.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to fully shelter our children from society’s image of perfection.
Male action figures feature muscles that exceed the measurements for even the largest of body builders. Of course, their lack of realism is nothing compared to Barbie. The average American woman is now a size 16 – but you would never know it by turning on a television. Society pushes an image of beauty that is not the norm, or even realistic.
Sadly, we can not hide our children from this unattainable ideal of beauty.
Here are four things that we can do to empower our children when it comes to their weight:
1. Lead by example.
Make an active lifestyle look fun and engaging. Don’t complain about working out. Don’t treat it as a chore and then try to sell it to your child. Instead, find ways to engage in physical activity that you genuinely take pleasure in, and encourage your child to do the same. Maybe you are a spiritual type who enjoys yoga, and your son is a competitive team player who thrives in soccer. As different as your interests might be, seeing you enjoy using your body will encourage your children to do the same.
2. Speak kindly to yourself.
Ban the dreaded three-letter “F-word” – especially in relation to your own body. Your child will learn how to relate to their body by watching you. If you constantly complain about your imperfections, they will learn to find their own and do the same. After all, as James A. Baldwin wrote, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” If you find things that you love about what your body can do, your child will see that it’s ok to be satisfied with their own body – and maybe even to love it. This is a valuable thing in a world that will constantly be sending her the opposite message.
3. Give them choices.
Kids of all ages like to be in control of what they put in their bodies and what their bodies do. Don’t we all? Don’t vilify junk food and glorify vegetables. Instead, give simple options and let your child choose. Would you rather go for a bike ride or play basketball in the driveway? Do you want to snack on cucumbers with ranch dressing or an orange? When a child gets to choose healthy activities, they are much more likely to enjoy them.
4. Let your child be awkward.
The teenage and preteen years are an uncomfortable time physically. Their bodies look weird. They don’t feel right in their own skin. Don’t add to this already awful dynamic by making your child feel self-conscious. Instead, focus on the things they are doing well. Encourage them to find hobbies they enjoy. Ask about their friendships. Give them chances to be creative, clever, brave, and adventurous. These things are important. Show them by being interested and encouraging. Don’t pull focus by bringing your child’s attention to their body image.
“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir.