Raise your hand if you wish you could go back to the days of childhood innocence with your body image, before you were afraid to be different, fat, take up too much space, or have some other perceived flaw. Me too.
Studies have consistently shown that negative body image is a strong predictor of disordered eating behaviors that can eventually spill into a serious eating disorder. Thus, it makes sense that preventing negative body image would be a good target for prevention of eating issues and low self-esteem.
A recent review published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders looked at the role of parental involvement in preventing negative body image. Not surprisingly, it turns out that parents play a powerful role in the development of a child's body image.
Let's break it down – here's what we know:
- Parental focus on a child's weight increases the child's concerns about his/her weight.
- Negative body image often leads to dieting.
- Dieting is a form of disordered eating that can progress into an eating disorder.
- Eating disorders are a serious illness that is very difficult to treat. Relapse rates are high.
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
- Thus, preventing the illness in the first place is paramount. Even if an individual doesn't develop a full-blown eating disorder, negative body image can lead to a lifetime of poor self-esteem and chronic dieting, both of which are damaging to a person's health and wellbeing.
My plea to all parents:
- If you are dieting, STOP. Even if you don't say a word about it your child sees what you are doing and internalizes the message that you believe there is something wrong with your body. They then infer that a person's weight needs to be monitored and controlled and that the best way to "fix" it is via dieting. (Did I also mention that diets don't actually work? In fact, dieting is the #1 predictor of weight gain.)
- Focus on your child's health, not their weight. Give your child regular, predictable opportunities to eat. Serve a variety of foods at meals/snacks. Don't exclude food groups or label foods as "bad" or "junk." Keep a neutral attitude about food. Let your child experience a variety of ways to enjoy movement – jump rope, ride bikes, go hiking or swimming, play team sports, whatever appeals to them. Trust that their body will regulate it's own weight without your interference.
- Model for your child healthy eating behaviors – 3 meals per day, snacks in between, all food groups, no good/bad foods, eating when you're hungry, stopping when you're full.
- Rock what you got. Embrace your own body. Treat it well with nourishment, movement, sleep and other forms of self care. Speak positively about your body and the amazing things it does for you.
- Eliminate fat talk. No more body bashing – that includes your own body and the body of others. When you see an image of a celebrity do not comment on weight. Refrain from judgments about the body size/shape of people you see in public. Don't comment on a family member's weight. Even if you aren't saying these things to or about your child it sends that message that a person's worth is based on their appearance.