As a dietitian who has witnessed body shaming of children, and was also overweight as a child, I know it’s time to put an end to the kind of body shaming of children.
A few months ago, one of my clients showed up for her 10-year-old child’s consultation with the sole purpose of reducing his weight.
The moment the boy stepped on the scale, his eyes filled with tears.
“Mommy, I gained weight,” he said with a shaky voice. “I am fat.”
My heart skipped a beat and while I did not know what to say at that moment, his mother sure did.
“I told you you were eating a lot,” she said loudly. “You should start a diet and attend your football training classes.”
Words like “diet,” “weight-loss” and “calories” have become part of our daily culture. Many parents tend to — often unintentionally — complain about their own body weight in front of their children. Their children then absorb conversations about food deprivation and physical activity as effective methods to burn calories, lose weight and reach an ideal body shape. Foods are referred to as good or bad. Compliments are inevitably given to adults or other children who have lost weight. Guess what? Children absorb every unhappy, unhealthy word, absorbing the perfect recipe for body dissatisfaction and shame their parents are passing on to them.
Most parents only aspire to build a healthy lifestyle foundation for their children. However, when children learn by example that weight-loss is a more worthy goal than body positivity and intuitive eating, those efforts are doomed to fail. Children are like sponges, effortlessly, continuously and indiscriminately soaking in information from the stimuli surrounding them. While it’s inevitable that as they grow up they will encounter messages of body-shaming, parents need to make every effort to positively shape their children’s self-perception and self-esteem.
So here are a few tips to support your children’s health, wellbeing, and resilience — and make sure you are not body shaming them in any way.
Be a role model, not a coach
Sometimes parents forget that their children imitate everything they do. If you want to establish healthy eating habits, you can’t be pushing your child to eat healthfully and participate in sports activities while you lay on the couch eating junk. Instead, practice what you preach. Make sure you enjoy the same delicious healthy meals that you prepare for your child; that you plan for a hiking trip together during the weekend and demonstrate the energetic option in basic activities, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator. All these simple changes will make a huge difference in your child’s lifestyle.
Talk about healthy eating, not dieting
Strengthen the relationship of your children with food from a health focus and not weight. Encourage them to embrace healthy eating habits by first teaching them the basics of nutrition. Talk regularly about the different food groups and the importance of eating the appropriate amount of each to support how our body functions. Never label food as good or bad or forbid a specific food; if you do, your children would feel like they are missing out on something and they are more likely to gorge while they are away from home. Also, allow your kids to decide what they want to eat without any judgment, while simultaneously helping them practice paying attention to their hunger and satiety cues. Consequently, children will learn to eat in moderation.
Promote self-acceptance, not body shaming
The roots of body dissatisfaction start during childhood, and when parents body shame their children, this is when serious health complications are more likely to occur. A 2017 study published in the Psychological Science journal revealed that when parents perceived their children to be overweight, their children are more likely to view their body size negatively and actively try to lose weight compared to their peers. And in a 2017 narrative review published in the School of Psychology and Public Health journal, negative body image attitudes among children was shown to increase the risk of low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, disordered eating — including unhealthy dieting — or clinical eating disorders or being overweight and obese.
Instead, parents must choose their words very carefully, explaining to their children that people naturally come in different shapes and sizes, to teach them to embrace that diversity and to reaffirm the beauty and positivity of self-acceptance independently of body weight.
And when a child talks about his or her body, parents need to listen carefully, answer with a neutral tone and ask about their feelings. This will help children to speak up, reject body shaming and learn to feel good about themselves.
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Nivine Hanach is a clinical dietitian based in Dubai and specializing in medical nutrition therapy. From Lebanon, she is pursuing her PhD In health promotion at Maastricht University.