Adults are every bit as much victims of the pernicious messages sent by the media as are their children. They are witness to fashion models in our society being thinner than 98% of the American public. One study found that 75 percent of women and 54 percent of men are unhappy with their physical appearance and wish their bodies were different. The diet industry in America generates $33 billion annually. With the trendy diets that go in and out of popularity so frequently in our culture, myths and misconceptions about the benefits of diets and restrictive eating abound. Increasingly, adult women admit to suffering from unresolved eating disorders into their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.With women increasingly in the work force and/or at the health club, only 50 percent of American families sit down together at the dinner table these days. Kids are left to fend to themselves when it comes to what, when, and how they eat. At the same time, fast foods have become more available and affordable with obesity on the rise, afflicting one out of three in the U.S. today. Studies show that mothers with their own eating disorders, body image conflicts and dysfunctional eating habits have children who are more apt to suffer eating problems and depression by the time they reach age five.
Prevention and solutions start at home.
The good news, and the bad news, is that the most critical messages our youngsters receive about their body image and their self-worth comes not from the media, but from what they see and hear AT HOME. As a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders for the past 34 years, I have treated literally hundreds of families dealing with eating related and body image problems. Through my work with parents and children, I have seen that parents who maintain healthy attitudes about their own bodies, who model healthy eating behaviors, and who provide nutritious food for their family, preparing, serving, and sitting down to eat meals together with children as frequently as is possible, virtually immunize their child from developing eating problems. Healthy attitudes and eating behaviors, along with healthy problem solving and sound parent/child connections becomes the “vaccine.” When children are raised to value themselves and the importance of making a contribution to world they live in, when they are taught to recognize feelings and are given permission to express them freely and effectively in the interest of solving problems, they will have no need or incentive to turn to food to do this for them.
When kids require information about healthy eating and body image, they will find it using whatever source is most readily available. Parents need to recognize the power of the example they set, of what they do, and of who they are for their children. Nature abhors a vacuum. If positive messages are not forthcoming from the home, you can rest assured that your child will be looking elsewhere for his or her answers, to peers and to the media, to fill in the blanks. Forewarned is forearmed. Eating disorders are not only curable in 80 percent of cases that are detected early and treated effectively, but they are clearly preventable.
What Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Love Their Bodies
Body size acceptance is not related to weight or actual body size, but to self-esteem and emotional health. The true indicator of a good body image is good self-esteem – not the ability to fit into size 2 jeans.
In an effort to foster self- and body-love, parents should:
- Minimize “diet” and weight talk, an activity that may require parents to take a look at their own eating and exercise rituals, attitudes, and preferences about weight and size.
- Never joke about, tease, or shame anyone because of her weight or size.
- Raise consciousness about the American cultural bias in favor of excessive thinness. Help your child develop immunity to the steady stream of media messages that distort her perspective by countering destructive messages with reality messages.
- Discourage dieting and weight-loss fads. Instead, encourage a wellness lifestyle. If your child wishes to lose weight, encourage her to eat differently, not less.
- Don’t equate thinness with happiness, self-satisfaction or self-actualization.
- Praise your daughter for what she does, not for how she looks. Do some of those things together with her in quality time.
- Give your daughter a vision of a greater purpose in life that extends beyond herself and her appearance, thereby encouraging her to develop healthy interests and passions. Self-esteem is drawn from productivity and contribution.
- Teach your child that there is no such thing as an “ideal” body. Beautiful bodies come in all sizes and shapes based on each individual’s unique strands of DNA.
- Pay attention to negative comments your child may make about her shape. Even if they are irrational, be empathic, not dismissive, as she feels her feelings deeply.
- Engage your daughter in a discussion about how she thinks she might look better and how she a changed appearance might improve her life. How does she plan to accomplish these goals? Engage together in activities that promote accurate, realistic and meaningful body awareness at more profound levels, teaching her to recognize the connection between body and mind.
- Encourage your child to become aware of her feelings, to own and express them in the interest of resolving problems rather than harboring them in her body.
- Discourage extreme or excessive behaviors of any sort, be they perfectionism, sleeping too much, sleeping too little, shopping too much, studying too little.
It is important for parents to realize that in order for children to feel attractive and good about themselves, they need to learn to become effective problem-solvers, good communicators, and compassionate people, as well as healthy eaters. As John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”