There has been a worrying rise in body image consciousness amongst children and young adults. Sometimes it stems from early childhood years at home or later peer pressure, or the impact of media, especially social media, body image attitudes sets the stage for potential eating disorders as they grow into adulthood.
Figures like 40% to 60% of elementary school girls (age 6 to 12) are concerned about being too fat, or worry about gaining weight, are red flag signals. Parents and teachers need to address this trend and turn the tide for our future generations. Young and older children are very impressionable and sometimes, we’re just not careful enough about the words we use in front of our children. So, what’s the best way to talk about and encourage a positive body image for children?
5 ways to encourage a positive body image
- Be a role model – our children copy our behaviours. Our brains have “mirror neurones” that are never switched off that teach us to copy others – whether the good or the bad. The more negative we are about our own bodies, the more our children will pick up on this and be negative about their bodies. Watch what you say: avoid using words such as ‘fat’ or ‘diet’ in front of your child; teach them about being comfortable with their bodies, especially as they grow older and their body changes shape. Always be positive about the clothes they wear, how they look and tell them they are beautiful.
- Get physical – exercise is one of the best ways to maintain or lose weight and maintain a body shape. It also boosts happiness, confidence and self-esteem. Encourage your child to take part in any form of physical activity, sport at school or out of school sports at clubs or leisure centres. Set an expectation that they take part in at least two physical activities, and then find out which they’d like to try. Take them swimming, roller skating, dancing, or even just a walk. If they’re worried about how they will look on the pitch or they believe they can’t do a sport because of their size, encourage them to look at examples of professional athletes who come in all shapes and sizes.
- Encourage a healthy food relationship – avoid labelling food ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and promote healthy eating. Involve them in making their packed lunches and teach them about the health benefits of the food choices they are making. For example, explain how many vitamins are in fruit or how nuts are good for brain activity, give them carrots and fresh veggies rather than cakes. If they want to eat chips or have a cookie, don’t shame them. Counteract this with ensuring nutritious, healthy food is always available.
- Appearance isn’t everything – explain to your child that the press or social media promotes a certain type of body image for the only reason that they want to sell something: what matters in life is what goes on in our heads, not what we look like. Think of all those amazing and inspiring Paralympians for example (see point 1 about role modelling). The physical is just the surface of a person, it’s the non-physical attributes that matter in life, such as being kind to others, enjoying what you do, or being smart or funny.
- Empty stomach vs full stomach – teach your child how their digestive system works and why we eat when our stomachs feel ‘empty’, and don’t eat when our stomachs feel ‘full’. Called ‘self-attuned eating’, this practice encourages children to understand that when they feel full, they don’t need to eat anymore. This helps them feel comfortable about eating food.
As parents, we shape our children’s future from the early days right the way through to adulthood. Just because we may not have a positive body image about ourselves, we shouldn’t be inflicting that onto our children. By following the above tips, children will grow up to be confident about how they look, and lead happier, healthier lives in the process.
Sports for Schools is a social enterprise that works with top athletes from around the UK and Ireland visiting primary schools to inspire and encourage kids of all abilities, and teachers, to be more active. Our mission is to Activate, Educate, Motivate and Innovate schools and parents through a series of events and workshops. If you’d like your school or parents to get active, get in touch with us and see how we could help you inspire our next generation.