“Body positivity” has been a hot topic in recent years and as a mom, it’s something that I have prioritized instilling in my own children. In short, body positivity is the idea that all people deserve to feel good in their body, period. The body positivity movement has worked to dismantle unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in popular media, help people re-evaluate their relationships with food, exercise, self-acceptance, and health, and replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Many of us have attempted to undo years, if not decades, of body negativity in pursuit of this goal – and it’s our turn to make sure our children don’t have that same uphill battle. Here are six tips for fostering body positivity in childhood so they can grow up feeling good about the skin they’re in.
Don’t comment on their size.
Most comments about a child’s physical size are well-meaning and innocent. “Wow, you’re getting so big!” “Look at those chubby cheeks!” “You’re too heavy for my lap!” However, considering anorexia diagnoses have been reported as early as kindergarten, it’s better to simply refrain. After all, what do these comments actually add to the conversation? Find ways to rephrase the sentiment you’re trying to express. Also, think of other, non-physical compliments you can offer. “You’re growing into such a smart, funny person.” “I love how hard you work.” “I love that I get to be your mom.”
Say kind things about your own body.
Kids learn by watching. We can tell them they’re perfect from head to toe all day every day, but that will fall on deaf ears if they hear us bashing ourselves. Often times, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. I vividly remember my father saying he hated a picture of the two of us because he looked “so fat.” Now, I feel sad when I see that picture. I learned from my mother at an early age that the Lean Cuisines were for “losing weight,” because, apparently, weight needed to be lost. Don’t call yourself fat. Don’t make comments about dieting or needing to workout. Instead – even if it feels unnatural – let your kids hear you talking kindly about your body and what you can do with it. Talk about what you love, whether it’s your strong legs or your big smile.
A major advantage of doing this? It might even help your body image too! The other day, I told my three-year-old that I loved my soft tummy because it was a home for her before she was born. As cliché as it is, I thought to myself afterwards, “Yeah! This soft tummy really is pretty amazing.”
Encourage them to share what they love about their bodies.
Even if you don’t make comments about your child’s body, it’s inevitable that the topic will come up. Encourage them to say what they love about their bodies, whether it’s the way their arms can throw balls clear across the playground or how their hair is the perfect length for braids. This is particularly important if they say something unkind about their bodies – help them flip it around and find things to appreciate.
Engage in physical activity with them.
Developing a healthy relationship with exercise is a key part of being body positive. Many children grow up with an understanding that exercise is a punishment; it’s something we do to keep our bodies as small as possible and work off the “bad” food we eat. Instead, model to your children that exercise is a privilege, and it can be a whole lot of fun. Help them find physical activities that they enjoy doing and make time to do it as a family. When you speak about your own workouts, try saying things like, “I am excited to go for a run today because it always puts me in such a good mood!” Create positive associations around the topic of exercise so that they grow up viewing it that way.
Don’t categorize food as “good” or “bad.”
When you teach your child that a food is “bad,” they’ll grow up feeling “bad” when they eat and enjoy it. As most of us know, shame is not productive. This isn’t to say that you should ignore all nutritional information – instead, just be mindful of the way you talk about certain foods. Teach your children that some foods supply more minerals, vitamins, fiber, and other things that enable our bodies to run and play and jump. They give us lots of energy and strength. Other foods supply less of these things, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place for them! We should strive to give our bodies lots of those important nutrients that it needs, but variety is always good.
Teach them to listen to their bodies.
So many of us were taught to ignore our bodily cues growing up. Things like “the clean plate club” taught us that we needed to eat until our plate was empty, not until we felt full. You can help your child develop a healthy and mindful relationship with food simply by showing them how to listen to their bodies. When my child began eating solid food, I was given a great piece of advice: You control what you serve, they control what they eat. When my child says they’re done with their meal, they’re done with their meal. If my child asks for seconds or thirds, they get seconds or thirds. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy conversation or a debate; they’re listening to their body and I’m listening to them.
Similarly, this is another opportunity for you to model how you listen to your body. Say things like, “I am feeling tired and a little bit cranky. My body is telling me that it’s time to eat something.” “I am not going to finish my plate, because my stomach is all full.” “We had a fun, busy day at the park! My body is hungry for foods that will refuel it.”
It’s really easy to type out these tips into a tidy list, but it’s hard to live them. And, as we’ve all learned over the course of parenthood, perfection doesn’t exist. However, by being mindful about what we say and do in front of our children and teaching them to appreciate our bodies for exactly what they are, we can do our best to give them this body positivity.