Dear Dr. Erika,
How do I talk to my daughter about body image? Lately, I’ve heard her say things like, I don’t want to be fat! First of all, she’s not fat. Second of all, she’s so young! She’s only 8! Where is this coming from? I tell her all the time she’s not fat.
How can I get through to her?
Mama Bear on a Tightrope
Dear Mama Bear on a Tightrope,
You are not alone. Let’s start there. This is possibly the most common question I get from parents — and mothers in particular. It is an especially common question from parents of children in the early grades, and the worries don’t quit through the tween and teen years.
You’re getting lots of advice out there to completely change the convo at home. Some popular ideas you’ve probably come across:
- talk about food as energy, don’t use the word “calorie”
- there are no “bad foods,” talk instead about balance
- all bodies are beautiful, refute your child’s ideas about any narrow thinking about beauty
- try to suppress any of your own toxic thinking on food, exercise, or bodies.
This advice is everywhere, so if you are writing to me for new advice, I imagine you are already aware this advice is alluring but has limits.
A brief comment on why: children listen the least to what you say. They know that words are the most fallible form of communication. Instead, they are attending to cues about community rules: what do we do, what do we think, and how do we act around here? Children are motivated by the need to belong and organize themselves in ways to achieve that basic need. Around early school age, parents become aware that children are tuning in to cues everywhere, including those beyond the family.
Here’s the good news: research shows that the biggest set of influences on children until they are deep into adolescence (around age 15 or 16) continues to be their families. Furthermore, research shows that even when peers influence children, our children are likely to utilize relationship strategies they have absorbed from their families to respond to and navigate peer relationships.
You matter. But that doesn’t mean you have complete control over the things that influence your child. The biggest mistake I see parents make is to pretend that our children will not be influenced by the exact same toxic messaging about beauty that influences us — or that we somehow can prevent the negative impact of these influences by saying things at home that completely ignore the reality of this problem. Doing this leaves your child with few strategies to manage it with the added problem of being completely alone while doing so. We can’t prevent the harm of narrow social standards of beauty; we can ensure they don’t feel ashamed for feeling the impact, as all people do to some degree.
The second biggest mistake I see parents making is to believe that they have to apply a binary to their own relationship with their bodies. Parents, and mothers in particular, are often afraid of their own “issues” impacting their children. In response, parents are likely to try to suppress their struggles. It is a completely flawed premise that we can hide from our own children. This, too, starts to rip at the seams in the early grade school years because the illusion that you can hide your authentic self from your own children often seems easier to hold on to in early childhood. Or, parents are likely to believe they have to “deal” with their own struggles, as though there is a magical way to undo a whole lifetime of never feeling good enough — this leads to a sense of failure and then irritability in the parent-child relationship.
Let’s try something new. First, have the courage to understand your child is their own person, and your job is not to try to throw yourself in front of risk and shout, “don’t look!” Your job is to mentor them through the challenges they face.
Second, be a whole person they have access to and can grow with — share your struggles openly, paying attention to naming the things that are hard for you, and discuss your ways of dealing with them. Wonder together about additional strategies and solutions that you haven’t tried yet. Heard the quote, Be the change you wish to see in the world? Do this by role modeling wellness That's the most powerful way to parent.
Next, stay open and curious when your child invites you in to their internal world … what they believe, think and feel. Instead of shutting down convo — “No! That’s not true!” — let’s open it up. Name what you feel:
Ouch. When you call yourself ‘fat,’ because that is a word that means something bad to me, I react.
Then, ask some questions:
But what do you think of the word?
Share your reflections:
I recently have learned that a lot of people don’t think being fat is a bad thing, but that it is just one way to be beautiful.
Tell them what’s true:
I love you and I want you to love every part of you as I do. I know sometimes that can be hard, though. I’m always here to talk about it.
Now, here’s where you can put your energy on an ongoing basis. Research shows that a person’s self-concept necessarily includes an assessment of their physicality, and there is no way around that assessment being inclusive of other people’s norming of beauty standards.
You can do two important things. One, poke some holes in the sense that there is in fact a single standard of beauty. Pay attention to opportunities in your world, every day, to point out diverse ideas about beauty authentically. Start as early as possible. Be open to your child’s growing ideals about beauty and support positive ideas and thinking.
Next, be joyful about food, exercise and body. Again, this must be authentic, but see what you can find when you dig deep. Completely erasing convos about the physical nature of people, again, isolates your child from you and leaves a vacuum at home. You can differentiate this from negative critique of other people’s physical traits.
Notice beautiful things about your child and affirm them — spiral curls, new freckles, round hips that are starting to pop. Celebrate the things that are unique. This is most authentic if you are not just hyperfocusing on your child, but if other family members do this for themselves and others.
Body joy can exist alongside the normal experience of insecurities. When the convo is balanced, those insecurities don’t have to sting so much. Create a culture of body joy. Eat delicious foods without focusing on finding euphemisms for talk about calories. Talk about balance in the colors for health but also how fun it is to simply enjoy your meal, a treat, the time together around food — no matter what “food rules” are being met.
Finally, be a good role model for flexible thinking about bodies and the space they take up in overall self-concept. Affirm the many things we are and bring to the world beyond what we look like. Show your child that they belong with you and your family. Narrow beauty standards exist, but we don’t have to be ruled by them, and neither do our children.