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Instilling Body Confidence in Overweight Kids


Q. Ours is an overweight family: My husband, kids (girls ages 9 and 14), and I all are between 15 and 40 pounds overweight. I know we're not as active as we can be, and I'm taking steps to get us moving as a family.

My girls, though, have terrible body images. They call themselves and each other fat, and I know it's affected their friendships at school. I know how cruel kids can be, and I can't help but feel I've contributed to getting them into this situation. Is there something that I can or should be saying to my girls to make them feel better about themselves?

A. Tackle this situation from three angles.

First, make a rule that it's not okay to call people -- or even yourself -- fat, and then create a meaningful consequence when one of your daughters does so. A quarter deducted from allowance is usually enough to break such a habit. It's important to explain that any form of name calling is hurtful and unkind. Go on to say that you can't allow one daughter you love to say hurtful words to another daughter you love or to herself.

Second, when one daughter compliments her sister or herself, add 25 cents to her weekly allowance. You're not bribing your daughters; you're offering an incentive to help them learn to compliment rather than criticize each other. Have fun with this process of turning hurtful unkind language into loving supportive interactions. You might need to create a chart for each daughter in order to keep track of the quarters won and lost.

Third, introduce to your daughters better ways to describe their bodies. Give them a realistic view of themselves by accentuating the positive rather than focusing on any negative attributes.

Ways to Talk to Teens About Their Bodies

  • Teach about genes: "You know, you've inherited beautiful eyes from your father and lips from me and from both of us a portly body. You can't control genetic makeup. Let's concentrate on what we all can control."
  • Give reality checks: "It's true, you may never have a body like that young woman on TV but then only about 2 percent of people look like those TV stars."
  • Use the mirror: "Look at yourself. You have absolutely beautiful hair. Yes, you're a bit overweight but your body is perfectly proportioned. Once you go through puberty, you'll lose some of that excess weight. I did when I was your age."
  • Give credence to the limited important of appearance: "Appearances are important when you first meet someone, but they have impact for only about five minutes. Then people get to know the person's personality and intellect."
  • Focus on staying fit and eating right: "You can't change the fact that you have a genetic tendency to be overweight, but you can eat nutritious food and exercise. There's nothing more attractive than a woman who is healthy and in good physical condition."
  • Help your daughters buy clothes: "Those pants aren't the best for your body; let's look for another pair." "I see that these skirts are really popular these days. How about a pretty one for the party?" (Or bring your daughter to stores that have plus-size collections in teen styles, and ask a salesperson to help, if your daughters are okay with it.)
  • Compliment each daughter's appearance each day: "Those are very attractive earrings (hair clip, shirt) you're wearing. Is that the one we bought when shopping the other day? They look really nice on you."
  • Console your daughters: "I know it makes you sad that you're a tad overweight. I know you wish you were thinner. I wish I were a few pounds lighter too."
  • Problem solve with your daughters: "Let's think of one fatty food we can all give up."
  • Talk while watching TV: "Look at America Ferrera and Camryn Manheim; they're plus-sized and look how attractive and successful they are." "See that actress, she's too thin. She looks sick."
  • Call attention to appealing attributes: "You may not have the body every girl hopes for but you're smart, pretty, funny, and a good dancer. And you now what? People really like you."

Don't discount appearance; it's especially important to tweens and teens trying to discover who they really are. Just help your daughters keep it in perspective while laying claim to what they can and can't change and focusing on their positive physical attributes.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, October 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.