Five Suggestions for Instilling Body Positivity in Kids
Being active should be fun! What kid doesn’t want to go to the park? Photo credit: John Cavert
My mother was a beauty queen. My mother was Miss Republic County in the 1940s and competed in the Miss Kansas pageant. She had the voluptuous, dark good looks popular in that era and a gorgeous singing voice that won her vocal engagements around the state. She didn’t win the state title, but it was an experience that would stick with her, both in positive and negative ways, for the rest of her life. When she was older, she never wanted to talk about her beauty queen days because she was afraid people would doubt that someone who was now overweight could ever have been a beauty queen. Her embarrassment about her weight affected not only her but also her daughters.
I’m currently spending hours and hours sorting through pictures, minimizing the physical photos by throwing some away and scanning in others. Still, some are too special to be relegated to the computer. One photo I came across was a picture of my mother when she was a different kind of queen. My mother was the weight loss queen for her group of T.O.P.S (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) women, but as you can tell by the picture, she didn’t look too happy despite her weight loss.
My mom had a momentary victory in her lifelong battle against weight.
Since the birth of her fourth child, my mother’s weight had been an ongoing battle. A series of life events, a complicated move, and the discovery that her fourth child had an intellectual disability led to my mom turning to food to alleviate her depression and stress. My older sister and I were thin in the effortless way very young and active kids can be. We spent our days on our bikes, climbing trees, and swimming – coming inside only when the dinner bell rang. I remember talking to my sister about our mom and insensitively saying, “What’s the big deal? She should just stop eating so much.” It didn’t help that my dad, who was tall and thin, would say, “Just push away from the table, Esther.” He was clueless in his quest to be helpful.
Age, pregnancies, and a love for sugar wiped away my smugness. Or perhaps it was karma exacting revenge for my insensitivity towards my mother’s weight issues? After my second child, I began having weight struggles, something I never imagined I would face when I was young and fit. Talking negatively about myself, obsessing about my weight in front of my daughters, not loving the skin I was in are examples I regret setting for my daughters. I heard my mom talk negatively about her body, and I hated it, but I repeated the same mistakes with my children.
I said all the right things to my daughters, ensuring they knew how proud I was of them and how much I loved them. I told them they were smart. I praised them for their work ethic, and I thanked them when they were kind to others. I told them they were beautiful but focused on reinforcing qualities that didn’t center on appearances. My role modeling diluted my positive words. They heard me lamenting my extra pounds, obsessively keeping track of points or calories or whatever plan I was on that month. They heard me complaining when my clothes were tight, or I felt self-conscious in a swimsuit. Children listen and watch, especially the behavior of their same-sex parents. They tend to mimic what they see and hear.
Jumping on the trampoline was one of my daughters’ favorite family activities when they were young.
I didn’t break the generational mistake of body negativity, and I regret that. I wish I had followed these five suggestions that help children develop body positivity.
1. Teach them correct names for all their body parts from the beginning.
When they are still babies, we teach them about their nose, eyes, and ears. If we call their genitalia by nicknames, we imply that there is something shameful about them. Discuss the functionality of our body and teach them to appreciate our body for what it does.
2. Encourage kids to be active.
Make exercise a fun part of family life without emphasizing burning calories. Get outside and throw a ball, visit a park, or go on an evening walk with the dogs. Not everyone can be the next Michael Phelps, but we can all be active and have fun while doing it.
3. Set a good example.
Accept yourself as you are right now, even if you aren’t at your ideal weight. Don’t let your kids overhear your negative self-talk, or they may take it to heart. If you don’t think you’re good enough, it may leave them wondering about whether they are good enough as they are. If you’re struggling with your self-image, you may have to fake it until you make it.
4. Make mealtime a happy family time.
Provide healthy food but don’t force a child to eat and certainly don’t encourage the clean plate membership. It’s good to educate kids on what nutrients various foods provide for the body and to serve reasonable portion sizes. This lesson can also include foods we want to eat daily, like fruits and vegetables, and foods we rarely eat, such as sugary treats.
5. Model acceptance of all body types.
Never let them hear you say a negative or judgemental thing about someone’s body, including your own or theirs. Despite what the media would have us believe, some people are thin, some are rounder, some are short, and some are tall. None of those superficial qualities determine our worth. We’re all beautiful in our uniqueness.
Body positivity is difficult for me as I continue to struggle with extra pounds and some of the other joys (insert sarcasm here) aging brings. I am trying to focus on gratitude for all that my body can do for me, even if it doesn’t always look the way I’d prefer. My mother didn’t set a positive body acceptance example for me, and I didn’t for my daughters either. I am determined to do better with my grandchildren. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better!”
Making exercise fun with our grandkids by doing local fun runs together!