Sunday, 26 February 2023

Raising Body Confident Kids

Raising body confident, happy kids is something that sits very high on my list of priorities as a mum. 

Having spent most of my own life struggling with body image issues and low self-esteem, I know only too well the importance of having a positive relationship with your body and ensuring that your self-worth is not intrinsically linked to your appearance from a young age.

I was brought up in the 80s and 90s - when the most popular TV shows were things like Baywatch and Gladiators. Shows that my peers talked about at school, which meant that I wanted to watch them too.  Shows that were very image-focused, and portrayed womens bodies as almost always slender and toned.

The few females I saw on screen who did not fit that description were usually either the butt of all jokes, or the villain of the story. The messages this sent around the female body were received loud and clear by my young self.

I then went on to spend my teenage years and early 20s surrounded by an onslaught of misogynistic women's magazines, where celebrities bodies were regularly scrutinised for the world to see - often with big red rings of shame drawn around their  "problem" areas such as cellulite and tummy rolls whilst on other pages there were endless photos glamourising the "heroin chic" and size 0 trend of the time.  When even the thin and beautiful Hollywood stars weren't immune from the harsh beauty standards that women were held to, how could us "normal girls" ever be expected to be good enough in societies eyes?!

Another factor that I believe contributed to my poor body image was diet culture, something I was exposed to rather a lot as most children of the 80s were. I remember joining in with my mums Bridget Fonda work outs as a little girl, and hearing all about the diets she was trying. I often heard the women in my life talk about their own bodies negatively and most of them would always be trying to lose weight. My Aunt ran a local slimming club which I would go along to most weeks and I found it all fascinating, watching what the grown up ladies did at these groups - gossiping and giggling, as they stepped on and off the scales. I remember how they'd celebrate and cheer for each other for losing a pound, and how sad they'd look when they gained half a pound. As though they were suddenly worth less because they weighed more.

That group taught me a lot about what was expected of women in society. How our size is supposed to be a priority, how we're always supposed to strive to be as small as we possibly can and take up as little space as possible in the world, about how much people fear gaining weight. I grew up believing that being fat was one of the very worst things that you can be as a woman and because of that, I feared my changing body as I got older.

Looking back, I don't find it very surprising that body image was always something I struggled with. In fact I think it would have been pretty impossible for most of us 80's and 90's kids not to grow up with warped ideas of how the female body "should" look and all the ways we're supposed to centre our lives around achieving it.  I'm so grateful for finding the body positivity movement when I did, to help me find my way out of this endless cycle of shame and self loathing before turning 40...while I still have time left to just enjoy my life without always focusing so much on weight and appearance.

But now that I'm a mum, how can I try to stop the cycle from repeating itself? How can I prevent my children from having to waste the first 39 years of their lives caught up in the same trap?

My eldest niece is now 13 years old. This is one of the most crucial times for body image, as a child's body begins to change and develop...the language we use around them and the example we set can be at its strongest around this age.

So how, in a modern world where teenagers are exposed to Tik Tok trends and online trolling, can we raise our sons and daughters to be comfortable in their own skin and how do we protect them from societies damaging beauty ideals?

1) Be Language & Compliment Aware

It can be second-nature to many parents to use appearance-based compliments for our children. It's often difficult not to compliment these adorable little people we've created. isn't it?! But it is so important to realise the impact that even our well-intended comments on their appearance can have.

By using appearance-based compliments for children, we're teaching them that their looks are important. That people will like them more if they look nice, that it's a way to earn people's positive attention. It can even lead them to make the connection that their looks are where their value lies.

This can become problematic when their bodies begin to change and no longer look the same way, it can lead children to believe that their looks are all they have to offer, and it can also lead to jealousy and comparison syndrome between siblings and peers as they overhear these compliments.

Rather then focusing on appearance-based compliments, it can be more beneficial for young people be regularly praised and celebrated for their other attributes. Their kindness, their empathy, their emotional intelligence, their sense of humour etc. 

For example when taking photographs for a fashion collab we did together, I was mindful of complimenting Amelie on her posing skills and her creativity while putting looks together rather than praising her body.

Of course nobody is saying that you should NEVER give an appearance based compliment to a young person, but try to balance them with non-appearance based compliments and be very aware of the language you're using. For example...rather than praising a teen for "looking lovely and slim" in an outfit, just telling them that they look lovely is enough. Don't put a focus on the specifics of their body, as these can change over time and confidence issues may develop.

It's also important to be mindful of the language and comments that are made about other peoples bodies within earshot of your child - this includes critiquing the shape and size of pop stars and actresses, and commenting on the weight loss or gain of family members. Your child will likely internalise a lot of the things they hear you discuss and use this to form the basis of their own feelings toward bodies...including their own.

2. Educate & Open Up Conversations

One of the most important things to do with our children, is to include them in conversations about body image and discrimination. 

Did you know that over 80% of children's movies released in recent years were shown to contain weight stigma?  I found that to be a horrifying statistic, but what we can do is use the stigma portrayed in popular culture to educate our children - this can be done by calling out stigma and discrimination when we see it and having conversations with our children about why this is wrong.

The same can be said about beauty filters on social media, and the impact of filtered and edited celebrity photos. Our children will most likely be exposed to these things at some point, so rather than ignoring it - we can use these to open up conversations about why they're used, and what message they send to the world.

Encouraging critical thinking in children about the images they see in the media will help them to compare themselves less.

3. Encourage Positive Role Models

One of the most effective ways to overcome poor body image in adults is to diversify the types of body they are regularly exposed to, and so the same is true for children.

Research shows that exposure to thin and toned celebrities in the media raises the risk of eating disorder development and lowers a teens own body image quite dramatically, and so exposing them to more realistic and varied representations of body shape and size can be very beneficial in changing this.

We can do this by being mindful of the books and movies we're providing to our children, ensuring that there is plenty of diversity and teaching children that healthy beautiful bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. It's also so important that we're mindful of our own attitudes and comments about the bodies we see in the media as children can and will pick up on this.

4. Encourage A Holistic Approach To Health

Rather than teaching children about diet, nutrition and exercise from a weight-focused perspective - we should be teaching children how to look after their health on a holistic level.

Teaching them about nutrition, how food is used to support our bodies and how it contributes to our health in a variety of ways, discussing the food/mood correlation, and encouraging children to partake in joyful movement - finding ways to stay active that are fun and enjoyable for them without focusing on weight or appearance but instead focusing on positive mental health outcomes and just good old fashioned fun!

Teaching children how to understand and connect with their emotions, and tune in to their bodies through practises such as mindfulness and yoga can also be incredibly beneficial. 

5. Set The Right Example

Finally, the most important contributing element of your child's relationship with their body will be your relationship with your own body - or at least how you demonstrate this around your child.

The media, peers and schools can all be contributing factors in a childs body image but it is undoubtedly the attitudes of their main caregivers that will have the biggest influence of all.

Ask yourself, how is your relationship with your own body? Are you stuck in a cycle of yo-yo dieting? Is your child aware of this? Do you make comments about your own weight or appearance around your child? Do you comment negatively about other peoples size around them or heavily praise people who look a certain way? 

How about your attitude toward food? Do you talk about some foods as being "Bad" or "naughty"? Do you express guilt for eating certain things?

All of these are things that can impact a child's relationship with food and with their own body, both now and in their future.  It is so important to be mindful of how we talk about these things around our children, and the best way to do this is to take steps toward healing your own body image so that you can set this example for them.

It can be so difficult to begin to heal your own body image, but if you can't do it for yourself - maybe you will feel more able to do it for your own children. Remember that it's all about baby steps and intention - you don't need to feel guilty if you're not able to feel good about your body but you can keep working toward a place of impartiality and modelling an impartial, healthy attitude on body image for your children.

Do you have tips you'd like to add? I'd love to hear them!

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