Written by: Samantha DeCaro, PsyD (she/her)
Director of Clinical Outreach and Education, The Renfrew Center
The way parents feel and talk about body image and bodies in general – their own, their children’s, and other people’s – has a big impact on children’s attitudes about body image. Here’s why.
How Poor Body Image Does Serious Damage
Body image is a complex concept that goes far beyond what we see in the mirror. The way we see ourselves can be impacted by various forces, including our culture, our beliefs, our emotions, our memories, and our life experiences. Our parents’ feelings, attitudes and comments about our bodies, their own bodies, and the bodies of other people invariably affect our body image, as well.
How Poor Body Image Does Serious Damage
Poor body image affects more than just self-esteem; it is often the fuel for disordered eating and dangerous eating disorder cycles. If your loved one is in therapy addressing body image issues, they are likely engaged in the onerous work of deconstructing harmful beliefs about size, weight, and shape, while also learning how to identify, accept and honor their body’s cues, both physically and emotionally.
Why Parents Are So Influential When It Comes to Body Image
Parents can be powerful supports for children at every stage of development, whether their child is still forming their relationship with their body or actively healing from a damaged one. Although family members cannot directly cause eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder in their children, without the necessary education, self-reflection and skills, parents can unwittingly contribute to future body image issues or hinder their child’s body image work in the present.
5 Ways Parental Body Image Issues Affect Children
1. Feelings About Your Child’s Weight, Shape, or Size
Any comments you make or non-verbal cues you send about your child’s weight relay both direct and indirect messages that can impact your child’s sense of self for years to come. Children internalize the messages they repeatedly receive; hurtful comments can become the voice of their inner critic throughout adulthood. Judgmental looks or comments about your child’s weight, even if those comments come from a place of concern, reinforce the problematic belief that their size is important to you and to other people, and will be used as a metric for their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Conversely, positive attention or praise directed at their weight (or changes in their weight) sends the message that their body is “good” one way and “bad” in others. Compliments like these can instill anxiety around inevitable bodily changes as they age and develop, as your child might fear they might one day lose these praise-worthy aspects of themselves.
The media, as well as the multi-billion-dollar diet & fitness industries, already place enormous judgment and value on weight, shape, and size. Your child does not need these messages to be reinforced, but rather needs help shifting their focus to more meaningful parts of their identity. If you are truly concerned about your child’s mental or physical health, do not put the focus on weight or appearance. Ask instead about their emotional experiences and encourage health promoting behaviors.
2. Feelings About Your Own Weight, Shape, or Size
Even if you’ve never made a comment about your child’s body, your child will remember the comments you make about yourself. As a parent, you are teaching by example and modeling various ways for your child to conceptualize their body, talk to their body, and respond to their body. Do you use self-deprecating language in front of your child? Do you make seemingly lighthearted jokes about your weight, shape, or size? Your beliefs and attitudes about your own body will likely impact your child’s relationship with their own body in their teenage and adult years.
Your voice can live on in their head, unknowingly chipping away at their self-esteem. If you are a biological parent, your child may also be aware, on some level, that you are also referencing the genetics you share. Perhaps you’ve developed your own body image in response to what was modeled for you in your own childhood, your interactions with others, or painful memories you carry with you. Breaking these intergenerational cycles and healing your own relationship with your body are priceless gifts you can give to yourself and to your child.
3. Feelings About the Bodies of Others
Your child is always watching and listening. If you see a celebrity on TV who recently lost weight, do you instinctively blurt out, “Wow, they look great!” or “They look so healthy now!”? Do you assume the celebrity’s smaller body size reflects their discipline or morality? The oppressive forces of healthism and diet culture perpetuate the falsehood that weight loss is a reliable indicator of health, morality, and character. The comments you make and the reactions you have to other people’s bodies, no matter how subtle, become the building blocks for your child’s belief system about self and others.
Your child is taking note of the body types that get both positive and negative reactions from you and creating meaning out of those reactions. It can be helpful to take a neutral approach to the bodies of others, and instead emphasize the values and inner characteristics of the people you encounter. By doing so, you’re teaching your child to acknowledge and honor those same qualities within themselves.
4. Viewing Your Body as an Instrument or an Ornament
Your child looks to you to understand the primary purpose of their body. The diet and fitness industries incessantly push the message that the outward appearance of the body matters more than the behaviors we engage in. The focus becomes on the weight, size, and shape of the body rather than the actual state of our physical and mental health. Our basic human needs are used as leverage points of manipulation. We are taught that the appearance of our body will either increase or decrease our ability to obtain love, belonging and happiness.
Because of these direct and indirect messages from the media, it can be easy to objectify our bodies and view them as a thing that needs to be constantly monitored and micromanaged. Taking time to acknowledge the amazing functions of the body and appreciating the experiences our bodies provide us can shift the focus away from superficial qualities and challenge some of these harmful messages.
5. Observing and Honoring Your Body’s Cues
Your relationship with your body goes far beyond how you think it looks. Body image also includes how it feels to exist in your body. In this culture, we’re taught to fixate on our body’s outward appearance, while many of us are completely disconnected from our own bodily sensations.
Do you notice and openly respect the cues your body sends, such as hunger, or do you respond in a punitive way to those signals? Have you talked about earning your food or burning off the food you ate in front of your child? Do you encourage your child to tune into and honor their own cues for rest or movement? When we are disconnected from our body, we are not only disconnected from our biological needs, but also our emotional experiences.
All emotions have a function; they will help your child navigate their relationships and the world around them. When we are disconnected from our body physically, we are at high risk of ignoring, minimizing, or invalidating our feelings, as well. Tuning into the bodily experience of our emotions helps us identify our emotions, accept them without judgment, and respond to them in healthy, adaptive ways.
Poor body image often precedes dangerous eating disorders and disordered eating, so it’s important that parents take time to consider how their choices might be impacting their child’s beliefs and feelings about their weight, shape, or size. Helping your child develop a healthy relationship with their body can be challenging, especially when we’re bombarded with mixed and confusing messages from the health and wellness industries. Awareness is the first step in this journey, as comments and reactions to appearance sometimes happen automatically, impulsively, or subconsciously.