Super thin used to be in and now lean and muscular is what we’re told our bodies must be, otherwise, we just don’t measure up. This is a hard enough message for adults to deal with on a daily basis, and one hopes that we at least have some perspective and understanding of how we are being marketed to, but when it comes to our kids, it’s no less than emotional brainwashing.
The culture that the multi-billion dollar diet industry supports has no issue in presenting our children with the “fact” that so long as you look like a superstar, you’re “good”, but anything less, or anything ordinary, or anything “different” – then there must certainly be something wrong with you. When YOU become the target, nothing inside feels safe.
This is a very painful message for anyone to be hearing, day in and day out: that we are not okay, not good enough, unworthy, and unlovable. As if we need another opportunity to feel unsure of ourselves or feel afraid to be seen for who we are in this world! Simply put, the messages that focus on manipulating the person-hood of a developing body and mind is damaging to our children’s emotional and spiritual worlds.
Even if we’re hardly surprised anymore to see higher and higher rates of eating disorders affecting younger girls (sometimes as young as four) and now young boys as well, we should still feel outraged. There’s no reason to continue this trend in our culture and watch a new generation suffer a broken relationship with their bodies or sense of self. So the question then is: how can you approach the topic of children and body image and how can we help our children have a happier relationship with their body?
We need to be talking to our children about how the media falsely communicates an unrealistic, perfectionist attitude towards the human body. They need to know that the billboards, magazines, and movies are all portraying an idealized and photo-shopped creation of the body. And show them how it all works. Our kids also benefit from knowing how marketing works – how companies employ colorful or “cool” pictures meant to appeal to kids for a particular purpose, one of which does not include their best interests when it comes to helping them become healthier or stronger. Teaching our children to be smart consumers has a direct correlation on their ownership and relationship to their body. It breeds a healthy cynicism of what society is trying to offer them, and turns them inward toward healthy choices, and realistic beliefs. If they’re too young to understand these concepts, then limit their exposure to such things until they’re ready to recognize, in an age appropriate manner, what they’re being asked to participate in when it comes to cultural values.
2. Be positive
Children internalize the messages they receive from their parents, whether we like it or not. Whether we’re aware of it or not. So the way we talk to our children is the way they talk to themselves. By providing our children with healthy and positive messages about the body, we help create a confident and approving attitude for them to experience about themselves. When we criticize their bodies, or we tell them they need to lose a little weight, when we compare them to someone else – all we’re succeeding in doing is laying the foundation for a painful and unhealthy body image. If we’re the voice of body-love, however, our children will be much more likely to create a loving relationship with their body.
3. Encourage body listening and respect:
While we seek to teach our children to listen and respect people in authority, their education is sorely lacking in learning how to listen to and respect their own bodies. In fact, the opposite is often encouraged. They are often taught to ignore their body and push past their limits. This is true from sports in elementary school, to all-nighters in college.
Why not teach them to recognize the signals the body makes, and the importance of responding appropriately, no matter what their community may prefer at that moment? If we teach our children to listen to the language of their body, we’re encouraging them to create a healthy relationship with their body.
Our body speaks in sensations and symptoms and we can teach this concept to our kids simply by drawing attention to what their symptoms may be telling them. For example – that their fever is telling them how hard their body is fighting to keep them healthy, or that their cold is their body asking them to dress appropriately when they go out in the rain, etc. We can likewise continue to encourage them to respect cycles of activity and rest, so their body performs best, and with the least amount of stress. These are all conversations that teach our kids the important ABC’s of body listening and self-care.
4. Support activities that make kids feel good in their bodies.
Since we’ve maintained an outdated a “no pain, no gain” cultural message when it comes to raising our kids, it’s no wonder they feel they need to push their bodies to the limit in order to succeed. Such values diminish feelings of ease and comfort in the body. But when we encourage our children to move with ease and pleasure instead, and when we don’t ask them to push beyond their limits, we teach them that feeling good in their body is a birthright, a natural part of being alive and a barometer for their daily activities throughout their life. Teach them to explore movement in ways that make them feel happy, and allow them to enjoy their body.
5. Be the example
Feeling good, speaking sweetly to ourselves and listening and respecting our own body sensations and symptoms is the most powerful strategy when it comes to helping our children create a positive and healthy relationship with their body. They see how we experience our own body. We teach by example, even if it’s a bad one, so awareness in this realm is key. By committing to be the example of body-love and body-respect, we are preparing our kids to follow suit.
This means taking the time to be in your body, learning how to respect it and discover its incredible abilities. Taking the body for granted by misuse, with food, sedentary habits, or cruel thoughts, forgets the gift our bodies truly are. By providing our children with a foundation to recognize their body’s communication, its cycles and requests for healthful and respectful living, we are setting them up to be aware, intuitive, respectful and compassionate adults. What a beautiful gift we can offer them!
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014
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