It was the first time I really considered the need of consciously promoting a positive body image around my daughter. I walked into the bedroom to find her in front of the full-length mirror, turning this way and that with a frown on her face.
“Mummy, am I fat?” she asked. She was seven years old.
I’ll be honest, Victoria Beckham needn’t quake in her designer boots about the women in my family rivalling her in the stick-thin stakes. Our Italian genes have blessed us with curves a-plenty.
The media bombards our girls with images of the ‘perfect’ body, implying this is the ideal. No wonder so many of them feel somehow defective.
And yes, as a teen I had hang-ups. I was taller than most of my friends and felt clumsy and ungainly next to them. I’d stand with my shoulders rounded, embarrassed my figure was so much more developed. I’d look at size 6 dresses on the rails in Top Shop (that’s size 2 in the US or 34 in Europe) and only dream about fitting into them. Maybe I could get them over one leg.
But as an adult – and certainly since having children – I’ve grown to embrace what nature gave me. I don’t care that my stomach isn’t flat, everything wobbles a bit and my boobs disappear sideways when I lie on my back. I wear a bikini on the beach and don’t give a damn what I look like compared to those lithe young Turkish girls. (Well, not much of one.)
I hoped this was enough to show my daughter that we should, as they say, love the skin we’re in. But the media – movies, adverts, so many magazines – bombards our girls with images of the ‘perfect’ body, implying this is the ideal. No wonder so many of them feel somehow defective; how can they live up to such airbrushed perfection?
It’s a shame we feel it’s necessary, but if you’re worried about your child growing up with a negative body image, there are a few things you can do to combat it.
With younger children:
- Talk about how people have many different bodies and features – large and small, squashy tummies and flat ones, long noses and short legs – so they grow up with the idea whatever people look like is acceptable. Watching television or looking at pictures in books or magazines are great opportunities.
- Don’t let them think being ‘fat’ is somehow wrong. Kids quickly fix on the negative connotations around the word; try and use it as a neutral description in the same way you would say someone was tall or had blonde hair.
- Rethink how you talk about diet. The last thing you want is for your child to view food as the enemy. Make mealtimes about being together as a family, enjoying what tastes good. We’re eating broccoli because our bodies need the vitamins and iron to work properly, not because we’re trying to get thin.
- Follow a similar approach with exercise. If you’re going to the gym, explain it’s because you want to be stronger or have more energy – not to lose weight.
- This might be a tough one, but always be positive about yourself in front of your kids. Don’t let them hear you complain about being fat or how much you hate your hips. The message you send your children on how you feel about your own body is the biggest influencer on how they will regard their own. If you’re constantly in front of the mirror patting your stomach and sighing, they’ll do the same.
- If you hear your children criticising others for their physical traits, discuss it. Ask how they’d feel if someone said the same thing about them. Talk about the importance of other qualities – does it matter what someone looks like if they are kind, helpful or a good friend?
With older children:
- Adverts are a great opportunity to talk about promoting a positive body image. With older children, you can discuss why companies use certain shapes and types to convey their messages and why this might be unhelpful. You can also discuss the use of lighting or editing tools to manipulate images to make them appear flawless, and reinforce the message that what they see isn’t real.
- Never under-estimate your own influence. According to a report by Common Sense Media, kids who think their mothers don’t like their own bodies will probably grow up unhappy with theirs. Fathers have a particular role to play with daughters; if a girl feels her father is critical of her figure or weight, she is more likely to grow up with body issues.
- Invite your child to walk with you – perhaps to exercise the family dog or enjoy pleasant summer evenings outdoors. As well as establishing a non-intrusive exercise regime, it’s a good chance to talk naturally on neutral ground and explore any issues they have.
- Enlist your child’s help when it comes to food shopping and planning meals. It opens up a chance to discuss diet, and make sure they see there’s no big deal about allowing treats; the plan is to show them everything is ok in moderation.
- If you suspect your child has developed an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, seek specialist advice. Hard as it is, don’t confront them or start making a big deal over how much they are eating (or not eating).