7 tips for raising a body-positive child

In a fat-shaming world, here are ways to teach junior to feel good in her (or his) own skin. 

Happy kid looking at reflection

If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wished you were skinnier, we feel you! In today’s fat-shaming world, it’s hard to have a positive body image.

This is especially so for our little ones who are growing up in an environment where mass media ― from television, movies and magazines to the Internet ― constantly promotes beauty ideals that are notoriously difficult to achieve.

Media messages on the ideal body are powerful, confusing and unrealistic body proportions depicted are often achieved with skilful photography and remarkable editing software,” notes Shrimathi Swaminathan, a clinical psychologist at Psynaptica. “However, we often internalise these messages and unwittingly make them a part of our beliefs.”

Singapore’s high prevalence of eating disorders is further proof that it’s tough to maintain a positive body image. Whilst there aren’t any official statistics, Shrimathi acknowledges that there is an increase in body dissatisfaction.

Also, girls are at a higher risk of developing anorexia nervosa ― between 1994 and 2002, 91.3 per cent were females against 8.7 per cent of males.  

“A healthy body image is not optional, it is essential for self-esteem and self-worth,” Shrimathi adds. “It is about feeling comfortable with how one looks and accepting aspects that one may not be entirely happy about (but can live with).”

As a positive body image is integral to a healthy sense of self, here are ways to raise a kid who’s comfortable in their own skin.

A healthy body image is not optional, it is essential for self-esteem and self-worth. It is about feeling comfortable with how one looks and accepting aspects that one may not be entirely happy about (but can live with).

1. Limit their exposure to the media

Research shows that the more prolonged a person’s exposure to the media is (this includes social media), the greater their body image dissatisfaction, Shrimathi notes.

For instance, Snapchat or Instagram can lead to intense feelings of body dissatisfaction because these focus on visual images. Because of the person’s desire to portray the “best version” themselves, many social media users only post attractive pictures. This may give rise to unhealthy comparisons and a longing to be something that one is not.

Shrimathi advises, “A general tip is to limit use of media to educational or high-quality programmes, and increase parental engagement to make sure that messages from these programmes are moderated.”

Parents can also create a personalised Family Media Plan for their child to ensure that they are consuming media in a healthy fashion.

2. Teach them to be a critical consumer of media and social media messages

While limiting exposure to the media is a step in the right direction, it’s also impossible to avoid it completely. So, parents should moderate the influence of the media on their child.

“Make it a point to watch at least some of the shows that your child watches, and talk to them regularly about the body image messages that are portrayed,” recommends Shrimathi. “Having an honest discussion can shed light on what your child is learning from these shows, and non-judgmental conversation can help build your relationship.”

Body with Soul dietitian Bridget Marr also advises using caution when it comes to dieting-related social media accounts.

“If your children are following accounts that advocate dieting, cutting out food groups or unhealthy exercise patterns, encourage them to approach these with a critical eye,” she says. “Many social media ‘experts’ are giving dangerous advice and creating a lot of fear around food.”

3. Encourage your child to develop skills and talents they will be proud of

Using media and having screen time itself isn't a bad thing, but problems occur when they take your child away from meaningful, hands-on activities that develop their physical and mental well-being.

To prevent this, facilitate the development of other skills such as physical sports, arts & crafts, social interaction and exploratory activities.

“Such activities help your child test their limits, build skills, develop mastery and have a sense of achievement and self-esteem that goes beyond bodily appearance,” Shrimathi explains.

 

Strong girl

4. Challenge commonly-accepted body image and beauty ideals

Beauty comes in all shapes and forms, so it’s important to help your child realise this!

“When you see celebrities or successful people in the media, you realise how different they look,” Shrimathi  observes. “Tall, short, chubby, skinny, light or dark-skinned, straight hair or curls, almost anything goes!”

Therefore, emphasise that confidence is what makes a person truly attractive. Teach your child that beauty isn’t just what’s on the outside, but it’s also a feeling.

It’s also helpful to list five things that make you feel beautiful and share it with your child, Shrimathi encourages. Feeling beautiful will likely have a lot more to do with what is going on in your mind than how you look on the outside.

Emphasise that confidence is what makes a person truly attractive. Teach your child that beauty isn’t just what’s on the outside, but it’s also a feeling.

5. Be a positive role model

“Whatever you would like your child to do or be, you have to model that behaviour,” Shrimathi points out. “Limit your own screen time, build a positive self-image for yourself and don’t obsess over your looks or weight.”

By doing so, you help junior recognise that one’s self-worth goes beyond physical appearance and weight.

Shrimathi also recommends trying this helpful exercise to boost self-esteem. On a regular basis, take turns to complete these sentences for yourself and your child (and vice versa):

* I’m good at…

* I like myself for…

* People say I am a good…

* I have the ability to…

* The things I admire in myself are…

* I feel good when I…

6. Reduce the importance of weight, appearance and body image to your child

To do this, encourage a healthy interest and curiosity in other aspects of life. This shows your child that there is more to life than outer beauty and one’s image.

For instance, when watching a TV show, gently steer conversations away from looks and point out other interesting things.

Shrimathi suggests, “Talk about the quality of relationships, the way things work or the historical significance of events. You can relate fictional events on TV to real events happening in the world around us.”

Over time, you should be able to push away concepts of the idealised body image from taking centre-stage in your gradually child’s mind. You’ll need to be patient and persevere, but it’s certainly not impossible!

7. Encourage your child to be with positive people

If you want your child to develop a positive mindset, encourage them to hang out with friends who are kind, compassionate and have a positive outlook.

“Positive people are those who are confident and self-assured enough to not put others down,” Shrimathi says. “They are secure in their own self-image, and are unlikely to make fat-shaming comments.”

Additionally, positive friends are less likely to comment on what your child eats or how they look, but will focus on being and doing things with them.

7 ways for families to have a healthy relationship with food

A healthy body image is also about approaching food in a sensible, informed matter. Dietitian Bridget Marr suggests tips parents can act on to make nutrition a part of everyday life.

  1. Prioritise eating together as a family as often as possible Make it a time where you catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Keep it light, avoid pressure to eat any foods. 
  1. Have a variety of foods on the table from all food groups Don’t comment about which foods and how much they should eat. 
  1. Encourage your child to tune in to their hunger and fullness signals If they are regularly using food when bored, sad or fed-up, ask them what they really need (such as a hug or listening ear).
  1. Avoid demonising high-fat and high-sugar foods You will only turn them into the “forbidden fruit” and trigger feelings of shame when these foods are eaten. Have these foods around and put them on the table occasionally, so these won’t be a big deal.
  1. Remember that eating is all about balance Since food is food, there aren’t any foods we should avoid eating. It’s important to eat a variety of foods that’ll give you the nutrients you need for energy, feel good and to maintain your health
  1. If you provide well-balanced meals and snacks without any pressure, your child will do their job of eating well. Trust your child to know how much to eat to match their needs. 
  1. Don't stress if your child doesn’t eat some foods at one meal Over the course of the week, they will likely get all the nutrients they need.

Photos: iStock

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