We may still live in a culture that values thin bodies for women and muscular bodies for men, but there's a growing movement that challenges all of that. The Body Positivity Movement promotes loving yourself and your body, no matter your size. It recognizes that all bodies are different—and that diversity among bodies is a good thing.
If you want to raise kids who have that kind of self-love, start early, says Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of Body Kindness. "Once you're into the early teen years, it's developmentally appropriate for kids to become hyper aware of their bodies and compare to others," she says. "What you do beforehand can have a significant impact in helping them boost their resilience to body shame."
Scritchfield has this advice for parents:
1. Watch your language: Negative talk about your body or weight can be damaging to kids. "Little ears pick up the message that there are 'wrong ways' to have a body or that their body should be valued based on a hierarchy of traits," she says. If your child expresses negative feelings about her own body, acknowledge her feelings with empathy. Scritchfield suggests saying something like, "I'm sorry you are feeling bad. I love you and I trust your body is right for you. I really appreciate that your body is strong and helps you do things you love."
2. Create positive connections with food: Explore foods with your kids, cook together, and plan the menu for the week. Show your child that food is good and nourishing, not something to fear, she says. Avoid making certain foods completely off-limits, which can lead to sneaking and overeating.
3. Acknowledge differences: If your kid blurts out, "Mom, that lady is fat!" don't scold him. Instead, respond with the truth, says Scritchfield. You could say, "Oh, are you noticing her size? Honey, people come in all shapes and sizes and there's nothing wrong with fat." That challenges weight bias and size-based discrimination, and teaches acceptance of all people.
But what if you also have genuine concerns about your child's weight and health? "Of course we want to do what we can to keep our kids healthy, but fear of bodies can lead to irrational rules about eating patterns that end up doing more harm than good," says Scritchfield. Focus on habits and health, not appearance, and help your child make connections with self-care. For instance, kids can learn to associate eating well and getting a good night's sleep with having the energy to do the activities they love.
Set a positive tone at home by serving an array of healthy foods, while still occasionally having treats. Let your child know that your family values staying active through play and exercise. Also, keep in mind that it's normal for kids to gain weight before a growth spurt. "Try to be patient and trust your child's body and habits," she says.
And remember that genetics can play a major role. "There will always be kids at higher weights no matter what," says Scritchfield. "That's why it is so important to teach respect for ALL bodies, whether your kid is thin or fat."
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.