A Brief Parent’s Guide to Positive Body Image

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness week, created by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which raises awareness about eating disorders. NEDA has great resources for you to educate yourself about eating disorders and body image. This year, the theme is “3 minutes can save a life”—and they’ve created a three-minute confidential online screening you can use to determine if you or a loved one needs to seek professional help. Early intervention—recognizing the signs of an eating disorder before it reaches a medical crisis—can increase the likelihood for full recovery and can save a life. But how does this affect parents?

Critical consumptionAs parents, you create impressions about food and eating for your kids starting when they’re infants, based on the attitudes you’ve picked up since you were an infant. These attitudes can set the stage for how children feel later about food and eating. Children mimic their parent’s behavior. For instance, if parents have poor body image—if they comment that they are “too fat” or “not thin enough” or that their “nose is too big”—their children are more likely to imitate that behavior. These attitudes and behaviors are so pervasive that, according to NEDA, about 40 to 60% of elementary school girls, ages 6 to 12, are concerned about becoming too fat or gaining weight. Children can pick up harmful ideas about fatness and body image from home, school, and social media. They hear it from their classmates, family, and watching television. One way to counter these harmful messages is to model positive body talk.

In order to promote healthy body image for your children, you have to model positive body image. Positive body image is being content with the way you look and feeling good about your body. Feeling good about your body can be challenging– it  takes a lot of self-awareness to counter the messages you’ve received from infancy. You may not match what’s on social media, or your family members may criticize you (lovingly, of course), but you are proud of and accept your body. Instead of critiquing the parts of your body that you do not like, look at yourself as a whole and tell yourself, “I am beautiful” and “happiness isn’t size specific.”

To help you on that path, NEDA identifies 10 steps to positive body image. Try it for yourself and your kids! Here are a couple of the everyday recommendations that you can add to your parent toolkit.

NEDALanguage can have an impact on young children. Repeating words such as “fat” and “diet,” especially if you are referring to yourself or others with disgust, can have a harmful impression in your children. They can internalize those negative feelings and worry about gaining too much weight and their need to diet. Try to avoid that kind of language. Another way to promote positive body image with your language is to avoid categorizing food as “good” and “bad”; rather, describe foods as “sometimes” and “always” foods. For example, you can eat vegetables, fruits, and proteins all the time, and you eat other foods—like dessert and fries—sometimes. When you do eat “sometimes” food, eat it in small quantities and not as often as “always” food. Parents can teach their children to be comfortable with their bodies as they continue to develop. Telling your children that they are beautiful just the way they are and that they are beautiful inside and out are not just clichés. They are effective phrases that promote positive body images.

You can also teach them about how their bodies feel when they are hungry (grumbling stomach) or full (comfortable). This will give them the tools to take ownership over their bodies and to trust themselves to know when they are hungry or full.

Including children in making breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner can be effective. It creates autonomy to decide which foods they like, and you can teach them about the food groups. You can even take them grocery shopping so that they can be involved in choosing what food comes home. As they choose food, you can explain the importance of variety of foods and how certain foods can provide nutrients and vitamins.

UNC has a plethora of events for this week to bring awareness and to educate students about eating disorders. You can find more information about these events by visiting this website: http://www.embodycarolina.com/neda-week-2016.html.