I belong to a ladies’ trail running community online. These women are cool, badass humans who perform amazing feats with their bodies. Last month, someone asked the group if they ever struggle with body image. The responses were overwhelmingly affirmative. Hundreds upon hundreds of women responded, “Yes! Me. Every single day.” Only a very few said no.
It was eye-opening and also woefully unsurprising. Most adults I know struggle with body image on some level.
Those of us who are parents would love to spare our children from this emotional baggage, but how do we help our kids develop healthy body image in today’s world? We’re up against massive biological and, especially, social forces. Humans are hardwired to see — and judge — faces and bodies, looking for signs of friendliness, similarity, and fertility. Our early survival as a species depended on it.
The modern diet and beauty industries have taken these natural propensities and exploited them to the nth degree. They bombard us with messaging, both subtle and overt, telling us we must do everything in our power to be as physically attractive as possible. No amount of time or money is too much to invest in the quest for beauty and the “perfect” physique. Oh, and definitely don’t show any signs of aging. The wrinkles, gray hair, and natural softening of the body that comes with growing older? Not allowed! Obviously, if you fail to live up to the ever-changing ideal, it is 100 percent your fault.
Short of moving to the woods and disconnecting from society entirely, we can’t keep our kids from being exposed. Our best hope is to help them develop a healthy body image early. Give them a strong foundation so when they inevitably get caught up in Hurricane Diet Culture, they may waver, but they’ll stay standing.
The strategy is two-fold: First, do your best not to repeat and perpetuate the culture that creates insecurity and negative body image. Second, teach kids to trust, respect, and appreciate their bodies regardless of appearance.
If you had asked me this a couple years ago, I would have said it’s feeling attractive in your own skin. You should love your body and feel confident no matter what you look like because all bodies are beautiful.
My thinking has changed, though. Now I think a healthy body image means seeing your body as worthy of care and respect — especially self-care and self-respect — period. Instead of focusing on self-love and feeling attractive, I hope my children respect their bodies, want to be good stewards of their health, and anchor their self-worth and self-esteem in factors other than physical appearance.
This isn’t the definitive definition of healthy body image. It’s what we strive for in our family. I don’t pretend that society doesn’t care about appearance, nor tell them that they shouldn’t care either. That would be impossible. Rather, I want them to know that their appearance is only one of many of their qualities, by far not the most interesting or important one, and certainly not the one that determines their value as a person.
9 Ways to Support Healthy Body Image in Kids
I’ll tell you up front: you probably do some of these things “wrong” right now. That’s natural. As parents, we try to bolster our children’s self-esteem. As Primal enthusiasts, we want to teach them about nutrition and building healthy bodies. Our natural inclinations will sometimes lead us afoul of the recommendations below, which come from childhood body image and eating disorder experts.
1. Cut The Negative Body Talk
Negative body talk is when you disparage your own or someone else’s body. It should go without saying that if you want your child to have a healthy body image, don’t criticize their body. That’s the bare minimum. You also have to watch how you talk about other people’s bodies, including your own.
Kids are always listening and internalizing. Negative body talk communicates to them explicitly or implicitly that some bodies are better. They naturally start to see themselves as objects of judgment and wonder whether their bodies are good enough.
“Ugh, I look so gross today.”
“Wow, that person should really avoid spandex, yikes.”
“That skirt is cute, but I can’t wear it with these thighs.”
“I have to put on makeup before this Zoom so I look presentable. Nobody wants to see these eye bags.”
Negative body talk usually comes from a place of insecurity and judgment. It’s also extremely common. Women especially learn that this is a safe way to communicate with female friends.” No dessert for me. I feel so fat today.” “You?! You look amazing. Look at me!” Once you start to tune into it, you realize just how pervasive it is.
Before commenting on your own or someone else’s body, ask yourself: “What is the underlying message I’m sending my kid with this statement? Could it cause them to feel insecure about their own body?” If yes, keep it to yourself.
2. Compliment Your Child on Features Other Than Appearance
Compliments like, “You’re so cute!” or “Don’t you look beautiful in that dress?” are undoubtedly well-meaning. The problem is, they also reinforce to kids that when they are pretty or handsome, that pleases the adults in their life. Being pretty must be important. If they aren’t pretty or handsome, is that displeasing then?
Of course we think our kids are adorable, but kids don’t need to know they are cute. They need to know they are valued and loved. Try these instead:
“Thank you for singing me that silly song. It made my heart happy!”
“You’ve been working so hard on your guitar lessons. You’re really dedicated, that’s awesome.”
“I love how sparkly your dress is! I can’t wait for you to come home and tell me all about the dance.”
This also applies when you’re talking about other people. Instead of, “Your friend Lily is so pretty,” go with “I love to listen to Lily laugh,” or “Lily is such a kind friend.”
3. Focus on What Their Body Does Rather than What It Looks Like
Bodies are made for function, not for decoration. Not all bodies have the same abilities or chronic health issues, of course, but every body is still miraculous. The fact that synapses fire and hearts beat is amazing. Our bodies are basically sacks of meat and fluid that allow us to move through time and space — wild!
Help your child celebrate the wondrous things their body does that have nothing to do with how it looks. “I can tell that your soccer drills are helping you dribble with more precision.” “Isn’t climbing trees fun? You pulled yourself up so quickly!”
4. Speak Respectfully about Your Own Body
Your body is every bit as wondrous as your child’s, but what do they hear you say about it? Most of us rarely speak positively about our bodies, lest we seem conceited. More to the point, we may find it difficult to find nice things to say about ourselves. It’s bad for our children’s body image, and it’s bad for ours.
Kids need to see that it’s ok to talk kindly about their bodies. Just as importantly, it’s possible to be neutral and not judge at all. “Flaws” are just features that don’t have to carry a bunch of emotional weight. If your kids are like mine, they will give you plenty of openings to model speaking respectfully about your body.
“Why is your tummy squishy?” “Tummies come in lots of shapes. This is mine.”
“What are those scars on your legs?” “Those are stretch marks from when my body grew when I was growing you inside me. I like that they remind me of that special time.”
“Your arms are flabby.” “I think my arms are perfect for hugging, thank you very much.”
You can also turn their comments around and ask questions like, “What do you like to do best with your arms?”
5. Banish Diet and Weight-Loss Talk
Your kids will get plenty of exposure to weight-loss and diet culture outside the home. They don’t need to know if you’re trying to lose weight. It’s a slippery slope into making them self-conscious about their own bodies.
The corollary to this is you should avoid labeling some foods as “fattening” or even as “bad.” In fact, avoid attaching good/bad labels to food altogether. This can be especially tricky for us Primal folks who have specific beliefs about what constitutes a healthy way of eating. Lead by example with your food choices. When they inevitably ask why you don’t eat bread or whatever, focus on the pros of the foods you do choose rather than demonizing the foods you avoid.
You can say things like, “Bread isn’t working for me right now. I feel like I have the energy to do more fun things when I have lots colorful vegetables instead!”
You don’t have to pretend all foods are equally nutritious, nor let food be a free-for-all in your house. The goal is to avoid moralizing and creating shame or guilt around food choices. Young kids won’t understand the concept of protein, fats, and carbs, but you can encourage them to eat a rainbow of foods to get lots of different building blocks. With older kids, gently introduce the concept that some foods can help them feel better and have more energy without condemning “junk foods.”
6. Celebrate Body Diversity
If everybody ate the same foods and did the same exercises, our bodies would still look different. Some people are tall, short, thin, fat, lean, muscly, blond, brunette. Children will always notice these differences, of course, so teach them to notice without judgment. Human diversity is a part of the awe-inspiring diversity of nature.
As they grow, your child will start to realize that their bodies are different from their friends’. Help them appreciate that, even — especially — when they are feeling insecure. “Yes, Max is taller than you, that’s true. I wonder how tall you’ll both be as adults. It’s interesting how some people are tall, while others are short. Everyone gets to see the world a little differently!”
7. Encourage Them to Move for Pleasure
The purpose of exercise needn’t be losing weight, burning calories, “earning” food, or punishing ourselves for something we already ate. Workouts build muscles, speed, or agility. Play engages body and mind, relieves stress, and offers fun and pleasure. Movement of all types feels good and provides energy. That’s why we should be moving our bodies as much as possible. Sometimes even we grown-ups forget that.
Some kids are naturally more active than others. If you have a kiddo who’d happily sit and read for 14 hours while their sibling plays in the pool, don’t make it a battle of wills. Lead by example, modeling everyday movement. Plan active family outings. Better yet, ask them to help you plan activities that they’ll enjoy and which the whole family can do together.
8. Instill Body Trust and Autonomy
In order for your kids to have a healthy body image, they have to feel connected to their bodies. You can support this by teaching them to trust and respond to their bodies’ signals, and by allowing them, within reason, to make choices about their bodies.
This one’s hard because you have to cede some control to your kids: letting them eat when you think they should be full, skip a meal when they should be hungry, don shorts on a cold day, wear a shirt that is two sizes too small, or get a haircut that you think is truly wretched. Sometimes it may even mean letting them choose foods for themselves that you usually avoid.
Think of it as short term pain for long term gain on your part. It might irk the bejeezus out of you when they eat nothing but cheese for lunch for a week, but who’s it hurting really? Nobody who isn’t lactose intolerant.
9. Teach Media Literacy
How great would it be if we could wipe out all body insecurity by simply teaching kids that the images they see in the media are the work of glam squads, body shapers, and lots of photoshopping? Alas, it’s not that simple, but it’s still an important lesson as kids get older.
As they start to notice all the ads for weight-loss programs and laser resculpting, discuss how advertising exploits our insecurities to get us to spend money. Let them be offended by it. Good, maybe they won’t be so easily manipulated.
Guide them in limiting their exposure to media and accounts that make them feel “less than.” Talk to them about what they see and how it makes them feel.
Parenting from a Place of Love and Support Rather than Fear
Years ago, Mark wrote a post about the delicacy of talking to kids about weight. One commenter shared that the best thing their parents could have done would have been to talk to her about weight and health from a place of love instead of judgment and projecting their own fear.
Fear is understandable. We know that this world is not kind to fat people. Fat children commonly experience bullying.1 Fat adults experience street harassment and job discrimination.2 Weight stigma, including at the hands of medical professionals, leads to worse health outcomes for both kids and adults, which then gets attributed to the weight itself.345
Of course we want our children to grow up healthy and happy, liked by their peers, and accepted by society. We’ll jump at the chance to help them avoid pain whenever possible. Parents who operate from a place of fear usually try to fit their kids to the cultural ideal, which is just as unrealistic for most kids as it is for adults. The better, more sustainable option is to operate from a place of love and acceptance, helping your kid feel good in their current body.
What if I am Really Concerned About My Child’s Health?
If you are genuinely concerned that your child is developing unhealthy habits, please seek out expert guidance from childhood nutrition and movement experts who are also versed in childhood eating disorders. A lot of eating disorders start in childhood when well-intentioned parents put their kids on diet and exercise programs in the name of health.
Body Image is Always a Work in Progress
Prepare yourself for many bumps in the road. As kids grow and their bodies change, they will come up against new challenges. Their peers’ bodies will change at different rates and in different ways than theirs. Even if you try to innoculate them early, they will confront unreasonable beauty standards and diet talk as they engage more with media and as their friends do the same.
You’ll be working on “body stuff” for as long as you parent. Keeping the lines of communication open is one of the best ways to help your kid navigate their way through tricky body image issues. Let them know they can come to you with their insecurities and fears, confident that you will listen without judgment.
Give Yourself the Same Gift of Working on a Healthy Body Image
No parent looks down at their precious newborn and thinks, “I can’t wait to pass all my hang-ups and insecurities on to you.” Somehow, we believe we can instill a healthy body image in our kids, then turn around and hate on our own bodies. That’s some magical thinking right there.
You have to walk the talk. Do you trust your body’s signals and allow yourself to respond with food, rest, or movement as needed? Do you move for pleasure or punishment? Do you speak to yourself with kind words or harsh criticism?
Put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, right?
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.