Promoting a healthy body image in children

by on 7th November 2018
Promoting a healthy body image in children

Extract from No Body's Perfect

‘Mummy, is eating cake bad? Should I stop too?’ My son asked me this after his seventh birthday party when I refused to eat a slice of birthday cake stating I was on a diet and was trying to lose weight. I didn’t realise my son was watching me and my eating and that it was making him question his eating. I now eat a variety of healthy foods with treats every now and then including birthdays. Knowing my son is attending to what I do, I know that I need to be modelling the right behaviours. —Annabel, 32

Parents and carers of small children have the biggest influence on their early body image development. This is because, before children start interacting with peers, they watch and learn from the adults in their life. They learn many things from adults as role models, such as feeding themselves, dressing themselves, how to play, how to show emotions, how to be kind, as well as their thoughts about their bodies. They listen to the comments we make about their, our, and others bodies. We have a very powerful influence and we want this to be as positive as possible so in this chapter we’re going to go through how, as a parent and carer of young children, you foster a positive body image. Then as children grow older and attend school, their peers and teachers become influential too. For teachers, watching children learn and grow is wonderful and we want them to be healthy and happy. We’re there to help them learn about friendships, how to play with others, how to learn, and we keep them safe. Then as children move on to become adolescents, as parents, carers and educators, we try to help them manage puberty, the stresses of academic demands, physical changes to the body, learning about relationships, safe behaviours, and positive mental health and wellbeing. Children and young people look to us, as adults, for guidance not just in what we say to the answers to their questions, but also in the conversations they witness us having with others and the way we talk about ourselves. Being a positive role model to children and young people is not easy especially in a world where there are many influences out of our control (i.e., social media, advertising, peers). But what we can do is try our hardest to be the best role model possible and this is what we’ll learn about here.

As a quick overview, the way we be the best role models, as well as educating children and young people about how to be safe in the world, is by doing the following.

  • Speak positively about others, including their bodies, but emphasise more the importance of qualities and values.
  • Talk about our own bodies in positive ways as well as highlighting our strengths.
  • Teach children and young people about healthy eating for its function in the body.
  • Encourage children and young people to be physically active and exercise for fun and fitness.
  • Warn them about the dangers of dieting.
  • Stand up for children and young people that are being bullied.
  • Create safe classrooms free from teasing.
  • Educate children about mental health and help seeking.
  • Address your own body image issues and get help if you need it.
  • Educate yourself about warning signs for disordered eating and mental health concerns.
  • Engage them in activities that help them challenge media messages.
  • Celebrate children and young people’s successes and support ‘doing their best’.
  • Be open for children and young people to come to you for help. Listen non-judgementally and try and help solve the problem.
  • Complement yourself on your efforts with children and young people.


Positive role modelling for young children pre-school

Before children start going to school or daycare, adults in the home, as well as siblings and relatives, play a big part in their development in all areas of life. This includes physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and spiritual development. You want to make this as balanced as possible, so that no one thing is focused on at the exclusion of another. This means providing a child in your care with healthy options for their body and mind including body image.

Children learn about food through us. They will eat what we provide, so provide healthy nutritious foods, but also ‘treats’ for special times. Talk about food in terms of its function in the body rather than ‘good’ food vs ‘bad’ food labels. For example, eating fruits and vegetables helps give us energy to run around and play. Protein helps us build muscles so we can run fast and lift things like our bodies up into tree houses. Breads and cereals help fill us up so we can think and sleep well. A little bit of fat in our diet helps our brains work.

Be mindful of what you’re eating and drinking as children will copy and ask questions. If you’re dieting, make sure you’re prepared to answer questions such as why you’re eating what you’re eating or not. Sometimes talking to children about the different needs of children vs adults can be helpful. For example, adults have stopped growing and are less active so don’t need as much energy from the foods they eat. Also, adults need to do more ‘structured’ exercise as they don’t run around and play like children do. This helps children understand why you might do more structured physical activity like going to the gym or walking. Making your family an active one where you all get out and enjoy the fresh air, playing sport and games, will encourage your children to do more of this. This is especially necessary if your child isn’t naturally active. Remember, children copy what we do so if we are sedentary and constantly using devices instead of moving our bodies and engaging face to face with people, it is likely that your child will become overweight and unhealthy and we know that overweight children are more likely to become overweight adolescents and adults which creates long term health risks. Overweight children are also more likely to be teased by their peers. So be as active and engaged as you can.

Your child may be a fussy eater for sensory reasons or have had negative experiences with certain foods. Encourage eating a variety of foods rather than giving in to fussy eating. This will stop future eating issues.

Protect your child from the negative influences of others such as those who make negative appearance comments or who tease. If you have people coming into the home that make comments about people’s weight, shape or size, talk to them about your family being a body image friendly family where you don’t make appearance comments. You choose the rules in your home remember. Your child may be upset by others’ comments so be open to talking to them about this.

Be aware of what your young child is watching, listening to and reading and think about its appropriateness. Choose body image friendly books and TV shows (i.e., those that focus on diversity) and talk to them about what they understand from what they watch (often called media literacy and is addressed in Chapter 5). As children get older you will have less control as they use social media and electronic devices. Be aware of the parental controls that are on devices so you can monitor your child’s exposure to negative media messages whether these be about body image or something else.

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep so they have energy to play and run around to keep their bodies healthy. Make sure you too are looking after yourself with time out for relaxation, social time with friends, quality relationship time, time to look after your spiritual self, as well as managing the stresses of day to day life. Bringing up happy and healthy children requires work so make sure your needs are being met too. Get professional help if you need it.

I have suffered from depression throughout my life and didn’t cope with it very well whilst growing up. My mother had anxiety and depression and my dad was alcohol addicted. They weren’t very good role models as my mum spent a lot of time in bed and dad seemed to drink to ‘cope’ with stress. When I had my children I decided I wanted them to be as resilient as possible and that started with me. When I feel down I tell my children that ‘I’m not feeling my best today’ and try to do things that make me feel better. For example I say, ‘I’m going for a walk to clear my head’ or ‘I’m going to call a friend for a chat to talk through the problem’. I’ve noticed my kids have followed, so when they are having a difficult time we talk about it and try to come up with a solution. Sometimes they just need a hug and other times we need to come up with some strategies to manage. —Maria, 40

Positive role modelling for school-aged children

When children start school their peers and teachers become some of the main influences in their lives. But it’s important for parents and carers to assist children in developing ways to positively interact with others, respect adults, follow rules, know who to go to for help, manage teasing, manage the media, among many, many, things. Teachers are fantastic at modelling to children respect for others, how to be healthy at school with food and exercise, how to have fun, how to learn, and how to ask for help, just to name a few.

The school environment though can be a significant time for body image issues to begin as children interact with peers who may be unkind or hear adults talking about diets and weight loss. Following are some important points for fostering positive body image in school aged children.

Children will naturally compare themselves to others. So talk about diversity and uniqueness and that nobody is exactly the same and this is what makes everyone interesting. Encourage children to think about differences and the positives of this. Look at the body for its function rather than its aesthetics. A great classroom activity is for children to draw their body and identify each part and what it helps them do and what makes them unique. For example, my blue eyes are from mum, my smile makes other people feel happy, my legs help me run around the playground, and so on. Counsellors can also do this with children on a one on one basis.

Children listen to adults and their peers talking, including their appearance conversations both in the home and at school. ‘Fat Talk’ in particular, is quite common for people of all ages to engage in and can have a negative impact. Fat Talk is where adults’ or peers’ conversation focuses on weight concerns and body shape complaints. This commonly occurs by adults when they think children aren’t listening. Hearing such talk can lead children to start worrying about their own body weight, shape and size and can contribute to body dissatisfaction. It’s important to realise that both talking about underweight and overweight can have negative effects so try to stop having conversations with others about weight and shape and instead model body acceptance and healthy talk. Make your home and workplace environments where healthy discussions take place. Focusing discussions about qualities and attributes is much healthier then conversations about appearance. Never put someone down because of the way they look in front of children. If you’re a teacher, and hear peers talking this way, you need to remind them that this isn’t the sort of talk we do at school. That we treat people with respect. A class activity on treating each other well and speaking well of others will assist here.

Teasing by peers about the body may start in primary school. In fact, the majority of children will be teased for something with 25% to 30% being teased about their weight. This teasing can lead children to start dieting, overeating or engaging in other unhealthy practices as a result, not to mention feeling sad, anxious, self-conscious, and depressed about themselves. So make your school a no-tolerance to teasing school.