Picture this – your child walks in on you trying on a new outfit in the mirror- you are trying to smooth down your stomach, checking the back to see your butt… then your brain starts letting your thoughts out, and you say “hmm, I think I’ll take this back, I hate the way my stomach looks so big in it”… you’re just making conversation, and you’re just being honest, but in that moment, your child learns big lessons that will stay with them throughout their life, about what women should look like, and how they should feel about their bodies and themselves.
Parents are a strong influence on children’s body image in direct (eg., food, physical activity) and indirect (eg., role modeling, acceptance of appearance-based teasing) ways. Research suggests that mothers are one of the strongest influences of body image attitudes and behaviours to children- particularly by role modeling attitudes towards our bodies, and the behaviours that we engage in based on our thoughts and feelings about our bodies.
Children engage in a lot of vicarious learning about the world, by watching other people, particularly up to the age of 6 or 7. They learn from us, and role modeling takes place, even when we are not aware of it, or actively trying to teach them something. In fact, they are more likely to pick up on, and remember the things that they see that have an emotional component than the ‘lessons’ we give them. Many research studies have confirmed that the things that mothers say and do in relation to their bodies can impact on the body image of their children.
So, if how you feel about your body, what you say about your body, and how you speak about other people’s bodies is important, what should you be doing to role model positive attitudes and improve the likelihood that your child will feel good about their body, and the way they look?
Most parents want their kids to love their bodies- you can choose to actively start showing them how, right now.
Much of this is about what you stop doing… or stop saying
Avoid saying things about your body.
Try not to say negative things about your body front of your child. This can take some practice, but it is worth it! Every time you catch yourself about to say, or halfway through saying something negative about your jiggly tummy when your child pokes it, try to flip it to a positive about the functionality of your body “Yes my tummy is soft and squishy, AND that makes it much better for cuddling you”. I call this the ‘Red Riding Hood’ approach, as in “all the better to see/hear/smell/eat you with my dear”.
Hold your comments about other people’s bodies.
It’s really important that we don’t comment on other people’s bodies- in a positive OR negative way. No “Oh you look great, have you lost weight”, or “wow, she’s really getting big” behind their back- none of that.
These things teach our children about the importance of weight and appearance in our society, and can give the impression that what we look like on the outside is more important than what’s on the inside, and what we are being and doing in this world.
Instead of the negative comments, try practicing compassion towards others- take a deep breath and send kindness instead of judgement their way- or at least don’t say anything out loud.
Instead of the positive – You could think or say non-appearance based compliments like “you look so radiant today- your energy is amazing!”, or “I hope that (name) is looking after herself right now” instead of the examples above.
Ditch the diet, or at least the diet talk
Remember the first time you heard and saw a celebrity, or your parent or caregiver change what they were eating in order to change their body? Pretty impactful huh. Let’s try to avoid modeling that to our kids. I would love to think that we could all stop dieting, improve our body image, and then role model that, but for some of us, that’s a long journey to go on.
The short cut is to start by re-framing some of the messaging. When we are going to say the negative stuff, like:“Mummy has to eat a salad because I need to lose weight”, instead try “mummy loves eating all of these veges to make my body feel good”. Can you see how flipping this switch could make all the difference to your kids?
Avoid labeling foods
Some of the words that we use around food and movement convey a lot of shame and judgment. Putting food into ‘healthy or unhealthy’, ‘good or bad’, ‘junk’ or other food categories starts to create an ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ effect. Just try calling foods what they are- strawberries, lollies, chips, instead of creating categories that get loaded up with meaning.
… and do more of this
Show your child how you nourish your body with food, and joyful physical activity. In doing this, you are teaching your child that a) you are worthy of looking after, b) we love our bodies, so we need to look after them, and c) food and movement are for fun and keep us healthy, not a punishment or a chore.
Just try one fun thing together where you can move your bodies and have fun- a silly dance party before dinner, or a fun game at the park. Point out the way that our hearts are beating fast and keeping us healthy as we have fun. And when you are doing physical activity on your own, try to tell yourself and your kids that you are doing this online class because you want to look after your body, not because you want to change it.
Fake it ‘till you make it
The Body Confident Mums team did some research, published last year, to explore the role modeling of mums, and how that was related to their own body image, and their eating and exercise behaviours. We found that the mums who had a better body image themselves according to our standardised measures were more likely to agree that they were a good role model for their children.
We still think you can fake it ‘till you make it- but you need to want to change. Could your kids be the prompt that you need in order to start working on feeling better about your body?
For Mums who are struggling with this, the first thing that you can do is start to treat yourself and your body with more self-compassion. Try changing the critical voice in your head to say the sorts of kind things that a friend would say to you instead. There are some great meditations to listen to by Kristen Neff that can kick start this process.
Once you start to treat yourself with kindness, and role model positive attitudes and behaviours to your kids, you will find that it gets easier over time.
So, take a deep breath, and think about what it is that you want to pass down to your children, what do you want them to believe about their bodies and themselves, and how can you support this process by really showing them your compassion towards yourself and others, and your appreciation of the functionality of your body.
If you need more information and motivation, you can read more about this in the new book ‘Embrace Kids’ by Taryn Brumfitt and Zali Yager.