In 1970, the average age a woman started dieting was 14. By 1990, the average age had dropped to eight. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, a 2009 study done by the University of Central Florida revealed that nearly half of three- to six-year-olds worried about being fat! In a society that glorifies ultra-thin bodies for women and overly muscular bodies for men, kids feel pressure to live up to these unrealistic and dangerous expectations. Here’s how to help your kids understand that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes:
1. Keep your house fat-talk free
It’s great to talk about health but do it without mentioning fat, calories and weight. Make sure your kids never hear you put yourself down for how you look. Make a point of complimenting yourself in front of them. If they see you appreciating your body, they’ll learn how to appreciate their own.
If your child asks, “Should I go on a diet?” just saying, “No, you’re perfect the way you are” isn’t enough. Find out where the question and motivation is coming from: “What do you mean by diet?” or “Are any of your friends dieting?” Explain how our bodies need food and exercise to be healthy. Restricting their food could interfere with their natural metabolism causing future problems. Reassure your child by making healthy decisions as a family when it comes to food and exercise. Acknowledging her concern and setting a plan of action relieves some of the stress she may be feeling.
3. Don’t forget your sons
More boys are struggling with body image issues than ever and are often ignored because they just don’t talk about it. Boys feel just as deeply as girls do, but may just be quieter about it. Teach your son that sharing his feelings isn’t a sign of weakness. For a boy that doesn’t respond well to sit down, face-to-face conversations about feelings, start a conversation while throwing around a baseball or driving to soccer practice instead. I find my boys are chattiest while playing basketball or driving in the car.
4. Afterschool activities
Get your kids involved in extracurricular activities where they can explore new interests and discover hidden talents. Try several! You never know what they’ll love. When they’re doing something they enjoy, they put less focus on superficial things like appearance.
5. Speak out
It’s difficult to watch TV or read magazines without seeing some kind of diet being promoted. When the “You’re not thin enough” commercials come on, explain that most of the before and after pictures are done with the help of computers and that healthy bodies are ones that eat a balanced diet and are physically active. Discuss how magazine pictures are photoshopped to make the models look different than in real life.
Marci Warhaft-Nadler is an eating disorder survivor and body image advocate. She travels to schools with her Fit vs Fiction workshops, tearing down dangerous myths related to beauty and fitness giving students of all ages the tools they need to tune out negative messages and feel confident in themselves. Her first book is The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive and is scheduled for release January 2013.