How to Talk to Kids About Body Image
Amanda Martinez Beck was eating dinner at home with her husband and four kids, ages 2 to 7, in Longview, Texas, when it came up. “Mommy, what do you eat?” her 5-year-old son, Brennan, asked. “Because you’re fat.” Her 7-year-old daughter, Lily, chimed in: “Kids at school said it’s bad to be fat.”
The F-word. It’s something Martinez Beck has dealt with her whole life. When she was a kid, many relatives in her big Cuban-American family would comment on her larger-than-average body. She was on a diet by age 7 and struggled with eating disorders throughout her teens. “My abuela was a very strong woman who got five kids out of Cuba,” Martinez Beck says. “She was also very critical of my weight and that of every other woman in the family. There was shame heaped on top of all the huge feasts she’d cook. The message was eat, but don’t get bigger.”
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Martinez Beck, who wrote a book about her experience—Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me—doesn’t want her kids to struggle with body image like she did. She tells her children that people naturally come in many shapes and sizes. But it’s hard to make that lesson stick when society, the media, and extended family often send the opposite message. Like many Latinas, she grapples with teaching her kids to live healthfully and accept their body at the same time.
While it may seem an impossible task, it’s easier than you think—if you strike the right balance. Here's how.
Take Baby Steps
Weight is a major health and social issue. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, 25 percent of Latino kids are clinically obese. As rates of obesity have risen, so have rates of eating disorders and poor body image within the Latino community. A study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that Latino fifth-graders had fewer positive feelings about their body than white children did. Not only that, but nearly half of all Latino students were already dieting, compared with 24 percent of white children.
Experts say that parents—rather than pediatricians, teachers, or coaches—will have to be the ones to positively shape their children’s body image. “Kids don’t automatically pick up how to tie their shoes or brush their teeth; we have to teach them,” says Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s of Alabama, in Birmingham. “With the difficult things, you can do so in little pieces, on an ongoing basis.”
For starters, it’s important to convey to kids that some people are naturally rounder or heavier, and that’s okay.
“While obesity certainly can carry health risks, people truly do come in many different sizes,” says Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “Some heavy people may be fit, just as some thin people may not be fit.”
Don’t Stress the Scale
Scientists from the University of Minnesota found that teens whose parents talked to them about food with a focus on their weight or size—as in “Don’t eat that or you’ll get fat!”—were actually more likely to go on extreme diets or exhibit eating-disordered behavior such as fasting, binge eating, or using laxatives. Teens whose parents focused solely on the healthfulness of foods and who didn’t talk about weight, however, were less likely to have any eating problems. And overweight kids whose parents exhibited a gentle and health-focused attitude when talking to them about food had fewer mood, psychological, and disordered-eating problems than those whose parents came off as more judgmental.
“I try not to talk about weight specifically with my obese pediatric patients or tell them how many pounds they need to lose,” says Seema Kumar, M.D., a pediatric metabolism and weight-management specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “I’ll say, ‘We are making these changes in your family because we want to make sure you’re healthy.’ I compliment them on the good choices they make, like riding their bike instead of watching TV.”
Of course, sometimes there’s no avoiding the scale. Pediatricians often tell kids where they fall on growth and weight charts during their yearly checkups. But those weight conversations don’t have to be negative or awkward, says Ovidio Bermudez, M.D., chief clinical education officer and senior medical director of child and adolescent services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver. In fact, Dr. Bermudez recommends that you use them as teaching moments to reaffirm to your kids that weight is only one measure of health. “We shouldn’t make the topic of weight taboo,” he says. But if your child is already sensitive about weight and you’re uncomfortable having the issue discussed in front of him, talk to your pediatrician.
Say Adiós to Body Shaming
Even if you tell your kids that they’re perfect just the way they are, what you say in front of them about yourself and other people, such as celebrities, can matter a great deal too. “Avoid making comments like, ‘I look huge in these pants’ or ‘Did you see how fat that lady is?’ ” says Dr. Puhl. That can send a negative message to your kids and make them wonder what you think of their size.
Conversely, even positive body commentary can be problematic. “If it falls into the wrong ears or mindset, saying something like, ‘Gee, you look fantastic, you lost some weight’ can be detrimental,” Dr. Bermudez says. An impressionable child might think, “Oh, people will like me more if I’m thin.”
The best reaction to have about body size? A neutral one. If your child ever points out that someone has a big belly or is fat, you can neutralize it by pointing out something else about the person’s body, suggests Dr. Fleisig, like, “Yep, and she has ten fingers and ten toes.”
Despite your best efforts, though, there’s still the chance that, say, Abuela will weigh in on the topic of weight. According to research from UCLA, a child who is called fat by a family member, peer, or teacher is more likely to be obese ten years later than one who isn’t. So set firm boundaries with relatives: no more commenting on weight, even out of love. “The key is not to say ‘You’re wrong.’ Just explain that in the context in which kids are growing up today, talking about weight can do them harm,” Dr. Bermudez says. In our culture, “nicknaming is so normal,” he adds. “And there’s no ill intent. But when we call a kid ‘chubby’ or ‘pudgy’ repeatedly, it can be truly internalized.”
By fifth or sixth grade, the notion that fat people are bad or inferior is already well ingrained in kids, according to the journal Obesity Research. You can see the cultural stigma of “fat equals bad” in children’s movies and books—such as The Little Mermaid—that often portray villains as fat. “If you come across a character who is being ridiculed or stereotyped because of her body, it’s a great opportunity to talk to your child about why that is wrong,” Dr. Puhl says. “Ask questions like, ‘Does body weight have anything to do with whether a person is kind or mean?’ ‘How do you think the character felt when she was mocked about her weight?’ ‘If you saw someone being teased about her weight like this character was, how could you help her?’ ”
Another way to fight the stigma about weight is to teach empathy. “You can make it a rule that treating other people with respect is nonnegotiable in your family,” says Dr. Puhl.
That’s something Martinez Beck is working hard on with her family. She talks to her kids honestly—without judgment—about her own weight and regularly employs the motto “All bodies are good bodies.”
The message is sinking in. Martinez Beck doesn’t have a bathroom scale, but her oldest kids, Lily and Brennan, found one at their grandparents’ house the other day. “When Lily got on that scale and saw that she weighed more than Brennan—we always talk about him as being so big and tall—she was proud and said, ‘Ha, I beat you!’ ” Martinez Beck recalls. “I’m trying to build a healthier world for my children, and I’m so thankful for each body-image win.”
Use the Correct Language
Expert-approved phrases to help you navigate the issues of weight, health, and size stigma with your kids:
Instead of: “Being fat is bad for you.”
Say: “Weight is one way to measure health. There’s also blood pressure, the foods you eat, and how much sleep you get.”
Instead of: “That person is fat.”
Say: “That man is bigger than you and me, but people come in all different sizes, and that’s okay.”
Instead of: “I’m fat, and Daddy is thin.”
Say: “I’m shaped more like a circle, and Daddy is more like a ruler.”
Instead of: “You shouldn’t eat that.”
Say: “Let’s see if there are some other choices that we can make today.”
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