Judith Matz, LCSW is a therapist, author and speaker specializing in eating and body image issues. Her books, The Diet Survivor’s Handbook and Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, have helped thousands of people make peace with food and their bodies. Her newest book, Amanda’s Big Dream, helps kids to feel strong and confident in their bodies—at any size! In this week’s blog post, Judith discusses how to support kids to have a positive body image.
We want our kids to grow up feeling strong and confident in their bodies. We’ve learned a lot about what to do—and what not to do—to promote a positive body image. We know better than to comment on other people’s weight and engage in diet talk in front of our kids. We model self-care behaviors and teach them values related to diversity in all areas, including body size.
But what happens when our children walk into the world?
No matter how well we teach our kids that bodies come in all shapes and sizes—that all bodies deserve respect and need to be taken care of—they’re going to come up against fat shaming messages that teach them something completely different:
- The teacher who turns down the birthday cupcake because “it’s too fattening.”
- The TV commercial they overhear touting the newest diet plan.
- The kids on the playground they hear being called names because of their body size.
- The medical professional who says, “you’d better watch your weight.”
- The friend’s parent who comments that they’re eating too many cookies.
And the list goes on and on and on.
We do our best to correct the messages they’re getting but, of course, they don’t tell us everything (and they don’t always listen to us, either!). The day comes when your six-year-old asks, “Mommy, am I too fat?” or your 12-year-old begins to diet or your 16-year-old develops an eating disorder. It’s a tough world out there.
But here’s where our greatest power lies as caretakers of kids: we can give them the gift of resiliency.
Resilience (noun) or Resiliency (noun): Able to recover quickly from misfortune; able to return to original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched out of shape. A human ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways.
I believe we help facilitate that resiliency when we pass our wisdom about body acceptance down to our kids. We do that when we practice attuned/intuitive eating. We do that when we participate in physical activities we enjoy, rather than for the pursuit of weight loss. We do that when we refrain from making negative comments about our own bodies.
I was reminded of how crucial our attitudes are when the topic of male/female dating came up at an all-day training I offered to mental health professionals on the treatment of Binge Eating Disorder. A participant raised her hand and said she faced the following dilemma: “The reality is that for my 20 something clients, it’s impossible to date at a higher weight, so I have to help them do something about that.”
I was about to respond to her about the problems with that point of view when another audience member shared her wisdom:
I’m a stepmom to two girls. Ava is thinner, and Talia is heavier. As we prepared to go on our trip to Mexico, Talia complained that she didn’t want to go. She said she was uncomfortable with her clothes and didn’t have anything that fit. I took her shopping and made sure she had some nice things for the beach.
Once we got there Talia was surprised to find that she got lots of attention from boys. In Mexico, there was a preference for a fuller body. Talia relaxed and had a great time.
And then we got home. Again, she expressed how bad she felt in her body. I said to her, “Talia, you were beautiful in Mexico and you’re beautiful here. It’s the same body, and we love you.”
As I think about the messages that the first participant was sending to her clients I imagine them concluding:
- Men prefer thinner women.
- You need to change your body if you want to date.
- It’s worth engaging in disordered eating behaviors to lose weight so that you can be happy, sexy and successful.
Then I compare that to the different message offered to Talia:
- You are beautiful.
- Men will find you attractive in the body you have.
- You are loved at any size.
If our kids struggle with these issues, messages we’ve offered that reinforce the pursuit of weight loss as important and valuable will add to their shame. On the other hand, messages of support, respect, and kindness around body size diversity throughout their lives will give them a positive place to return to.
We can’t fully protect our children from the body shaming they’ll encounter in a culture where disordered eating is normative and weight stigma persists. But we can give them a strong foundation in valuing body positivity and normal eating, so they’re more likely to recover quickly – to be resilient – in the face of struggles with food and weight.
As I always like to say: What we do, what we say, and even what we think, matters.
You have lots of power in the lives of the kids you touch. Knowing what we do about how painful and destructive struggles with eating and weight can be, it’s difficult to watch the kids we love deal with these issues. However, the attitudes we pass down will strengthen them in their relationship with food and their bodies so they’re able to reject fat shaming messages that are present everywhere in our culture.
But the reality is we can do our best, do the “right” things, and they may still struggle. We need to remember that we’re only one influence in their complex lives. They will have their own journey in figuring out how to be comfortable at any size and to take care of their bodies. We can rest assured that the seeds of acceptance we planted in their formative years will give them the greatest possibility of befriending their body and finding peace with food.
And if you haven’t been doing that – after all, you may have your own internalized body shame – it’s never too late to sit down with your kids and share with them that you’re learning some new ways to think about body size.
Originally published on the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) blog and republished here with their permission.
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