Studies show that kids as young as age 3 have body image concerns. Those concerns tend to escalate sharply — year on year — peaking in adolescence but often cropping up over a lifetime. Jocelyn R. Lebow, Ph.D., L.P., a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, offers her top tips for cultivating a positive body image in your kids. The first tip? The conversation starts a lot earlier than you’d expect.
MAYO CLINIC PRESS (MCP): When should parents start talking to their children about positive body image?
DR. LEBOW: We’re swimming in a toxic soup of negative messaging about what bodies are supposed to look like. Two- and 3-year-olds already understand differences in body size and may already be picking up on the value judgments our culture places on bigger versus smaller bodies. It’s important to be active in talking to children about how all bodies are good bodies but, of course, always in an age-appropriate way based on your child’s maturity.
MCP: We think of body image as a conversation to be had mainly with daughters. Is that now outdated?
DR. LEBOW: Unfortunately, this idea that body image is just an issue for female-identifying kids is a pervasive myth that has never really been true. The consequence of this misunderstanding is that what’s out there in terms of resources for encouraging a healthy body image mostly focuses on girls. We’re having just as negative an impact on our sons too — and an even bigger impact on nonbinary, gender fluid and transgender kids. We live in a society where the thin ideal and diet culture are ever-present. We do a disservice to kids of other gender identities by trying to mostly fix this conversation only for kids who identify as girls.
MCP: In talking about body image, should we use body mass index (BMI) metrics in healthy-weight discussions?
DR. LEBOW: Weight is a horrible metric for both health and how your body looks. BMI is a statistic that was never intended to be used to determine who is healthy and who isn’t on an individual level. We have BMI ranges that are considered “normal” that are completely arbitrary, and they’re not linked to health outcomes or what people actually look like.
MCP: How can we show that to our kids?
DR. LEBOW: You can be a good role model around your own body image. After all, it’s really hard for your message to land when you’re saying one thing to your kid and doing another for yourself. If you think your kid is beautiful but you’re also convinced you’re hideous, kids are going to notice. Even if it’s just how you’re talking about yourself when you look in the mirror. Do some thinking on how you feel about your body, what messages you have absorbed around your own body image. Also think about how you are approaching food, movement and appearance — and how you and your partner, if you have one, model that for your children.
MCP: How do we educate our kids on what moderation with food and exercise looks like?
DR. LEBOW: I think the concept of moderation is really tricky. A lot of times this phrase is used to actually mean deprivation or restriction with regards to eating. We know that is a serious risk factor for negative body image, disordered eating, and obesity and weight gain. All kids — especially teenagers — need to be eating all different types of food, including desserts and snacks. Ideally, kids will listen to internal cues and eat in a way in which they can sustain growth and development, feel full, and also be satisfied. Missing meals or snacks, not eating in situations where everyone else is enjoying something, and having major changes in growth are big red flags for me. Parents should work to counteract messaging about good vs. bad foods, and encourage eating based on internal cues, and based on when food looks delicious.
As for exercise, again, I think flexibility is key. I think it’s important to remember that all kids are born with different abilities and interests. To push one specific vision of what exercise should be that applies for everyone isn’t always the healthiest. Movement and exercise are great and can be really helpful for mood, especially sports and activities that are social outlets. But it’s important that your kids don’t overexercise or push themselves to where it becomes driven and inflexible. It’s important to help your kids recognize that taking rest days and allowing your body to heal also is a part of healthy exercise. Most kids who are able-bodied start out with this joy of movement, whether it’s running a thousand miles an hour around the playground, or putting on dance performances in the kitchen. Ideally, healthy exercise maintains at least a little of that joy.
MCP: As your child moves up through school and body image teasing becomes common, should you warn them this will happen?
DR. LEBOW: I don’t think you need to specifically warn your kids about all the teasing that they might experience, but before your child goes to junior high, they should have a foundation in healthy body image and knowing how to recognize and dispute the thin ideal. One way to build that knowledge is to call out body image distortions when you see the thin ideal being promoted — in conversation, on TV and especially on social media. Do it in a way that’s curious and starts in a dialogue. Put questions in your kids’ heads like: What are they selling with this post? Do you think they’ve used a million filters on this image? Who’s sponsoring it? Do you really think this influencer looks like that when she’s brushing her teeth in the morning or has the video been heavily styled? The more you call it out, the more you build that foundation. With body image portrayals in the media over the last few years, there’s been a step in the right direction with the addition of more plus-size models and growing body diversity of models. There’s still a ton of work to be done in this area, but this can be a good conversation starter around how you can be healthy and beautiful no matter your body type.
MCP: What should parents do if their children are being bullied at school over how they look?
DR. LEBOW: The parents should validate that what is happening is definitely bullying and be clear that it’s not OK. Problem-solve with your child and work with the school if necessary. What’s different about weight-based teasing and bullying is that sometimes people claim that they’re doing it for your child’s own good. They can say they are making comments about their shape because they care about your kid or they want them to be healthy. Blowing up that fallacy is important for parents to do.
MCP: Social media and group chats are a minefield for body image-related teasing and bullying. What can a parent do to mitigate the damage?
DR. LEBOW: People are extremely mean on social media because they say things impulsively that they would never say face to face. It’s really difficult to counteract negative body image messaging on social media because it’s so pervasive and insidious. You can’t simply say, “This is stupid, you shouldn’t be on these apps. Why do you even care what they’re saying.” This is our kids’ reality. These apps are how they socialize. As for not caring what other people say, frankly, I am a middle-aged psychologist and I can promise you I would absolutely care if I was getting these sorts of messages. Instead, it might be helpful to validate what they’re feeling and ask questions about how it’s impacting them. Set a context and give them a strong sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not.
MCP: How should parents approach body image through puberty?
DR. LEBOW: Puberty in general is marked by so much discomfort and shame — especially for kids in bigger bodies. I tell parents to set themselves up as someone who your child can talk to, so they know you’re not going to be judging them for their body and do not have to feel embarrassed to ask you a question about what’s happening to their body.
MCP: How can a parent know if their child’s preoccupation with body image is turning unhealthy?
DR. LEBOW: Know the red flags. In general, if your child’s body image concerns start to impact functioning and it’s getting in the way of their being able to do things — say, they don’t want to go to school because they think they look so bad or they don’t want to put on a swimsuit when they typically would love swimming. These are the things to look out for. If functioning is impacted, that’s when it’s time to talk to your physician or a mental health provider.
MCP: If a child experiences distress around body image and their gender identification, what can parents do?
DR. LEBOW: Support your kids on their journey. Talk about their reasons for making changes to their appearance or how they describe themselves. Let them explore any identity and appearance that makes them comfortable. Giving them space and body autonomy is extremely important.
MCP: It seems many families have a relative who makes inappropriate, critical comments about kids’ bodies or appearance. What’s the best way to handle this?
DR. LEBOW: Things are changing and mostly in the right direction, but it definitely feels like every family has someone making these types of comments. Some people are well intentioned, but lack understanding or context. This can sometimes be a product of their age and background. However, other people have bad intentions. It’s important for parents to buffer both types of relatives to protect their kids. If possible, address the comments directly with the person and attempt to educate them by being very clear. You might say something like, “We try not to comment at home on our kids’ bodies or what our kids are eating. Would you be able to align with us on that?” With some family members, that conversation can be really difficult, though — some people are really stuck in their ways. There will be times when the best approach is talking to your kid and saying, “This is completely unacceptable, but I don’t know that we are going to be able to change our relative’s behavior. How can I help support you?” In some cases, it might be appropriate to limit or even eliminate time with this relative. As parents, if we’re putting our kids in these situations, it’s our job to be their advocate.
MCP: Can parents be guilty of this too?
DR. LEBOW: I think we all need to question our own internalizing rules on appearance if what makes our children feel most comfortable makes us feel uncomfortable. Every family has rules in terms of what they’re OK with and not OK with, as far as types of clothing, slogans on clothing, whether an outfit is too revealing and other factors. But before you impose rules on your child, ask yourself as a parent: Are these rules for how I want my child to dress rooted in my own body image values? Have I bought into certain gender roles and ideals that I should look at? The answers to these questions can help you step back and also may help support your kid’s confidence around body image.
MCP: What’s your top tip for parents who want to get the body positivity aspect with their child right?
DR. LEBOW: I would say model self-care to your kids. Take joy in making yourself — and your body — feel good. Show your kids what a healthy mind and body looks like. If we are constantly scrutinizing ourselves, or bemoaning our appearance, even the littlest kids will absorb this negative body talk. Instead, let them hear you say things like, “I really like how I look today.” It may feel weirdly awkward the first few times. But you’ll get used to it. More important, it will create a really beneficial effect for your kids and their sense of what they look and feel like, in body and mind.
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