When I was nine years old, a family member called me Miss Piggy. When I was eleven, another family member told me not to grab a donut from the box on the kitchen table because though the other people in the house were thin enough to eat one, I couldn’t afford the calories. When I was nineteen and munching on a snack, a family member interrupted me mid-sentence to tell me that I should consider eating fewer chips and exercising more. Each time I was caught off guard, each time I felt shame. My body, it seemed, was there to be assessed and judged by others.
When I had kids of my own, I made the decision not to talk about my size or weight in front of them because, even if my jeans felt tighter that day, I didn’t think my children needed to get the message that how I looked or the way my clothing fit altered my sense of self or who I was. It’s a tough lesson. We are so much more than our bodies, yet they are the first thing anyone notices about us. But when we over-notice bodies in front of our children, we risk leaving them more vulnerable to body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
Eating disorders impact over 30 million people in the United States alone and, despite common misconceptions, can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. While only about 8% of girls and 4% of boys in the US have eating disorders, the message that our bodies don’t belong only to us, that they are available for criticism, and the owner of that body should consider changing theirs to fit into societal or family expectations is pervasive.
“When adolescent girls come along, they are learning what makes them valuable in the eyes of another,” says Tricia Space, a psychiatric nurse in Seattle. “And they are learning what makes them important to other people.” Because we all fundamentally want to fit in and be important, she explains, we will shape ourselves according to the value systems and structures that are in place. “Whenever females get dressed in the morning, they evaluate themselves with an audience in mind and with the hope of securely fitting in. Young girls have an awareness that they are constantly being evaluated.” And sooner than you think.
Here are three tips for helping to fortify your child’s confidence.
1. Lead by Example
From early childhood, kids pay attention when parents complain about their bodies and weight. When parents are around their children and make disparaging comments about themselves or the food they choose to eat, comments like, “I ate too much, I better go exercise,” or if their kids see them skip breakfast for a week because they say they want to look good for vacation, they’re grooming kids to take on bad relationships with food themselves. Even complimenting others on weight loss can be damaging.
I asked Dr. Jillian Lampert — the chief strategy officer for The Emily Program, a specialized eating disorder treatment program with locations in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington — how parents can help their kids navigate our culture of unreasonable body size and weight expectations. “The number one thing parents can do is not speak negatively about themselves,” she said. “Women do this more than men at this point. They get dressed and make demeaning comments about themselves, about their thighs, their chest, or their arms or whatever. We are socialized to do that. We do it alone, we do it in public, and if you do that in front of your child, that can have such a strong impact on your child because our kids, whatever age, think we’re superheroes. We’re like the greatest things ever and if we think our bodies are wrong and they think we’re a superhero…[they reason] ‘if you’re a superhero and you’re not good, then what about me? How can I possibly be good enough? Cause I’m a little kid.’”
When parents comment on their kids’ bodies or make derogatory remarks about their own weight, Ms. Spach says they are “making sure that the child knows that their value is being watched; their body is being watched and evaluated in a negative way. And what child doesn’t want to be right to their primary attachment figure or to be seen as favorable?”
Not saying negative things out loud in front of kids is the number one thing parents can do to protect their children from dysregulated eating. It can be difficult to turn off that dialogue in our heads, especially if we’ve been talking to ourselves like that for years. Dr. Lampert recommends that we “keep it inside or say it in some other place and not in front of kids. It’s SO critical,” she emphasizes. “Because if you don’t say the negative things about your body then your child doesn’t get socialized to think negative things about their body.”
2. Reinforce with Self-Talk
You can use parent self-talk to have a positive effect on your kids. Dr. Lampert recommends saying positive things around our children like, “I’m so grateful for my legs because they help me to walk around,” and “I’m so grateful for my arms because I can lift those groceries,” and “isn’t it great that our bodies let us rake the yard?” Complimentary statements along the lines of ‘isn’t it amazing what our bodies can do?’ are effective ways of teaching children to value their strength and resilience.
And, if you have a teenager who you imagine will give you the side-eye as soon as you start waxing poetic about the power of their body and not buy any of this positive self-talk, Dr. Lampert says, “You can cop to it. Say, ‘yes, you’re right. I’m doing that on purpose because the more you hear it, the more you’ll hear it outside of me and that’s what will take hold.’” It’s our work as parents, Dr. Lampert says, to keep up with the positive self-talk “because even if you don’t really buy it, if you say it enough, you’ll start to believe it.” Parent self-talk can be particularly helpful for kids who are susceptible to or influenced by what other people say.
If kids don’t get positive self-talk from their parents, then they’re going to be more vulnerable when they hear negative body and food talk from friends.
If someone you know talks about food and weight in a negative way, you can tell them that you prefer they don’t make comments like that around your child. Dr. Lampert has no qualms about intervening with adults around her teenager and encourages other parents to do the same. “In what hopefully is taken in a lighthearted, affectionate, connected way I say: ‘Wow, that sounds like a hard way to live, to have to do a lot of math problems to figure out what you can eat or what you have to do for exercise.'”
She likens critical comments about food choices and weight that some adults make to having told a really, really unfortunate or inappropriate joke. “You could say ‘hey, that’s not okay.’ And the more we do that [when we talk about food and our bodies] the less okay it will be.”
Dr. Lampert even steps in—and admits it’s tricky parenting territory—when other kids are at her house and their parents aren’t around. “For example, if dinner is over and somebody says, ‘Oh I’m so full I’m going to be fat,’ you can say something like, ‘Oh really? It sounds to me like you ate something you really enjoyed and you’re feeling overly full. Yeah, that’s a bummer. Feeling overly full doesn’t feel good physically and I’ll bet you’ll do something to balance that our later because our bodies know best. Our bodies know how to do that.’”
It takes work to change how we approach our bodies in the world. At the gym recently, I caught myself wishing I was as petite as a trainer I saw there, as narrow-boned and slender as she was. But then I realized my thinking I could look like her was as absurd as a German Shepard longing to become a Chihuahua. They might both be dogs, but that’s where the similarity ends. The trainer and I have completely different body types. I could never have her frame, and trying to would make me sick. So, I snapped out of it.
Trying to be different than who I am, tinier than I am meant to be, are rules I learned as a kid, but I don’t have to play by them anymore. Hopefully I’m teaching my children the same.