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How to talk to your child about body image

Talking about the f-word (fat) with your child can be tricky. Here's how to discuss weight in the healthiest way possible.

Amanda Martinez Beck was enjoying dinner at home with her husband and four children, aged two to seven, when the f-word (fat) was said. Brennan, her 5-year-old son, inquired, “Mommy, what do you eat? Because you’re fat.” Lily, her 7-year-old daughter, added, “Kids at school said it’s bad to be fat.”

Martinez has struggled with her weight her entire life. Many relatives in her vast family used to comment on her larger-than-average figure when she was a child. She was on a diet by the age of seven and battled eating issues throughout her adolescence.

Martinez, who authored a book about her experience called Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me, says she doesn’t want her children to battle with body image issues as she did. She teaches her children that people come in a variety of forms and sizes. But it’s difficult to remember that lesson when society, the media, and extended family frequently give the opposite message. She, like many mothers, struggles with encouraging her children to follow a healthy lifestyle while still accepting their bodies.

Martinez offers some advice on approaching the f-word with your children and teaching them about healthy body image.

Take small measures

Weight is a significant health and social issue. As the prevalence of childhood obesity has increased, so has the prevalence of eating disorders and poor body image. Experts believe that it will be up to parents, rather than paediatricians, teachers, or sports coaches, to mould their children’s body image positively.

“Kids don’t learn how to tie their shoes or clean their teeth on their own; we have to teach them,” explains clinical psychologist Wayne Fleisig. “With the harder things, you can perform them in small portions on a regular basis.”

To begin, it’s critical to teach children that some people are naturally rounder or heavier than others, and that’s fine.

“While obesity might pose health problems, people come in a wide range of sizes,” explains Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “Some persons who are overweight may be fit, whereas others who are skinny may not be.”

Don’t be concerned with the scale

Teens whose parents talked to them about food with an emphasis on their weight or size were more likely to go on severe diets or exhibit eating-disordered behaviour such as fasting, binge eating, or using laxatives, according to researchers from the University of Minnesota. Teens whose parents focused entirely on the nutritional value of items and avoided discussing weight were less likely to have any eating disorders. And overweight children whose parents spoke to them about food in a calm and health-focused manner had less emotional, psychological, and disordered-eating problems than those whose parents came across as more judgemental.

“I try not to talk particularly about weight with my obese paediatric patients or tell them how many kilograms they need to shed,” says Seema Kumar, a paediatric metabolism and weight-management specialist. “I’ll tell them, ‘We’re making these adjustments in your family to ensure your health.’ I commend them on their wise decisions, such as riding their bikes instead of watching TV.”

Of course, there are situations when you can’t escape the scale. During yearly check-ups, paediatricians frequently tell children where they fall on growth and weight charts. However, such weight-related discussions do not have to be nasty or embarrassing. While parents should not make weight a taboo subject, if your child is already concerned about his weight and you are uncomfortable discussing it in front of him, speak with your paediatrician.

Stop shaming yourself and others

Even if you tell your children that they are perfect just the way they are, what you say to them about yourself, and other people matters a lot. Avoid making remarks such as, ‘I look gigantic in these jeans,’ or ‘Did you see how obese that lady is?’ This can convey a negative message to your children, leading them to wonder what you think of their size.

Positive body language, on the other hand, can be harmful. Saying something like, ‘Gee, you look terrific, you dropped some weight,’ might be harmful if it falls into the wrong ears or mindset. A youngster who is called fat by a family member, peer, or teacher is more likely to be obese ten years later than one who is not.

Set hard boundaries with relatives: no more remarking on weight, even if it is done out of love.

Demonstrate empathy

According to the journal Obesity Research, by fifth or sixth grade, children have internalised the idea that obese people are bad or inferior. The societal stigma of “fat equals bad” can be seen in children’s movies and stories, such as The Little Mermaid, which frequently depicts villains as obese.

If you come across a character in a book or movie who is being mocked or stereotyped because of her body, it’s a perfect time to discuss why this is wrong with your child. Ask your child:

  • Does a person’s body weight have anything to do with whether they are kind or mean?
  • How do you suppose the character felt when she was made fun of because of her weight?
  • How could you help someone who is being bullied about her weight like this character was?

Teaching empathy is another technique to combat the weight stigma. You can make it a family rule that treating others with respect is non-negotiable.  

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