Supporting the body image of children

Do we want our own weight bias to be detrimental to the body image of children?

As I prepare for my next presentation for The Butterfly Foundation, a session for parents about supporting positive body esteem in children, I’ve been thinking about how our weight bias is passed down between generations.

Our attitude towards weight and body size often sits deep within us, unexamined and unquestioned.

It has been shaped by our parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, friends and peers, as well as our experiences and what kind of privileges or discrimination we’ve faced due to the body we just happened to be born into.  Our behaviours have been affirmed or criticised. Which of these behaviours are commended or shamed will vary widely according to our culture, social group, socioeconomic status, education, gender, sexual orientation, the colour of our skin and what size our body happens to be. (Not an exhaustive list)

We form a weight and appearance bias.

We learn to value ourselves and others according to what we look like and the size of our body.

There are many industries that exist and thrive on our low self-worth and insecurity.  If we didn’t feel like our bodies are a ‘problem’ to fix, then there would be no ‘solution’ for sale.  We’re pedalled the Thin Ideal EVERYWHERE and our culture is filled with so much thin privilege, that this bias is reinforced at every moment.

Our bodies change. This is a natural and inevitable part of life.

Whether its puberty, pregnancy, menopause, illness, injury, lifestyle changes, or simply just ageing – we are not meant to stay the same.  Yet, think about the last time you noticed that your body was softer, rounder, or more wrinkled.  How did you feel?

All the messages we receive tell us that a changing body is a failure on our behalf.

We’ve ‘dropped the ball’, ‘let ourselves go’, or need to do something to fix or hide it.  Our worth feels in question.

If you think negative body image is an unimportant or frivolous topic, then it’s time to open your eyes a little wider.

 Negative body image is a mental health crisis in many nations.  It is a strong predictor for dieting and disordered behaviour around food and exercise.  Why is this so alarming?  Dieting is the number one risk factor for eating disorders.  Whilst not all dieters end up with eating disorders, all people with eating disorders have dieted.  9% of Australians will experience an eating disorder requiring clinical intervention in their lifetime.  To put that in perspective, at the next wedding you go to that has 100 guests, 9 people in the room will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives.  And many more in that room will experience disordered eating or exercise.  Disordered eating increased 100% in the ten years to 2005.  It’s a health emergency.  Source: Butterfly report – Paying the Price, the economic and social impact of eating disorders in Australia.

I don’t blame anyone for being enamoured and captured by the Thin Ideal.

Everything in our society reinforces it, and we’ve been told our potential for experiencing love, success, admiration, connection, and happiness all rests on the size of our body.  It’s a powerful and distressing premise.

But do we want to keep passing on this idea of self-worth (or lack of) to our future generations?

Do we want our children, nieces, nephews, and little people in our world living this same torment?

One of the best things we can do to support the body image of children in our lives is to closely examine our own weight bias.

Notice it, question it, notice it, question it again, and strive to achieve weight neutrality*.  Slowly work on letting go of the notion that we’ll be better people, and be happier and more successful, if we were thinner.  Slowly work on letting go of the notion that a changing body means a personal failure.

Because when children’s bodies naturally change as they age, filling out, getting softer, carrying more body fat than they used to, our bias will send the message that there’s something wrong with them.

Our unexamined weight bias might lead to comments and criticisms of their bodies, (or unhelpfully complimenting bodies that are getting thinner), or giving out damaging eating or exercise advice under the guise of ‘health’ and being helpful.  Even if we’re not directing our weight bias at children, they will still internalise the message when they witness us criticising our own or others bodies or commending weight loss.

What can we do?

Educate children on how bodies are incredibly diverse and they naturally change and grow.  Refrain from commentating their body changes, teasing in jest, and comparing them to their friends or siblings.  Know invaluable support comes from helping them to stay in tune with their natural ability to know when they’re hungry and full, and fostering their inherent enjoyment of movement (not ‘exercise’) in a safe and loving home.  Role model a healthy relationship with food and movement that has nothing to do with changing your body.  Role model body acceptance.

Examine your language, behaviour and thoughts for evidence of weight bias, and commit to transcending it – for everyone’s sake.


Check out more ideas for supporting your child’s body image here

*What is weight neutrality?  Recognising that people are inherently worthy of compassion, respect and care, irrespective of our size.  In health care, it is focusing on the thoughts and behaviours that lead to improved wellbeing, not focusing on the weight itself.