Raising body positive kids

How to raise body positive kids

Discover how you can help your children become body positive by loving and accepting who they are inside, and not just focussing on what they look like on the outside.

Rosie Butler was enjoying a restaurant lunch with her two daughters, aged six and eight. When her daughters finished off their plates, the waitress commented to Butler that her girls are “good eaters, but you’ll have to watch that when they get older!”

Having grown up with a negative body image herself, Butler is determined to raise her children to love and accept who they are. She was shocked and angered by the waitress’s comments, which were directed at her but overheard by her daughters.

“We need to lift each other up and accept each other for who we are inside, not what we look like on the outside,” says Butler. “We need to teach our children the importance of kindness and tolerance rather than judgement. We need to focus on healthy choices for the love of your body, rather than physical beauty.”

Understanding what a healthy body is

Danni Rowlands heads up Education and Prevention for The Butterfly Foundation, which supports Australians experiencing eating disorders. She says a “fear of fatness” is prevalent in our society. “One of the biggest problems we have in the society we live in is weight stigma and not having a true understanding of what a healthy body is,” says Rowlands. “We need to really be aware that healthy bodies come in a range of different shapes and sizes.”

“My daughters have very different body shapes to each other, so we used that as an example. Ruby’s body isn’t like Remi’s, but it is perfect for Ruby. Remi’s body is perfect for Remi.”

Butler has noticed that her daughters have become aware of society’s pressure to be thin. “Recently I heard my eight-year-old say to my six-year-old that the drawings she was doing needed to be skinnier to be beautiful,” she says. “Needless to say, I was appalled and frightened by this kind of talk. We spoke about how beauty is inside, not outside, and how everyone’s body is perfect for them.

“My daughters have very different body shapes to each other, so we used that as an example. Ruby’s body isn’t like Remi’s, but it is perfect for Ruby. Remi’s body is perfect for Remi.”

Taking gender out of it

“There’s a big misconception that body image is just something that affects females, but through more research recently we’ve seen a real surge in body dissatisfaction in males,” says Rowlands.

It’s no secret what body “ideals” that many people, young and old, aim for. While typically females strive for thinness, for males muscularity is often the goal. These stereotypes start from a young age. “With children we’ve got to be really careful with the language we use, such as celebrating boys and their muscles, and girls for being pretty,” says Rowlands.

Simone Redman-Jones is the mother of a seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. “I make an effort to talk to my own children and others about what they’re doing and what they’ve achieved, and occasionally about what they are wearing or a new haircut,” she says.

Redman-Jones also refers to her daughter as being handsome and her son as beautiful — “I mix it up all the time to avoid gender stereotypes,” she says, admitting this approach is a work in progress.

Fostering healthy behaviours and self-esteem

“It’s important that parents focus on fostering healthy behaviours in their children in relation to food and exercise, rather than focusing on aesthetics or weight,” says Rowlands. “Bodies change, and it can be often quite confronting for parents to watch their child move through adolescence. We want to ensure that parents can really guide and help their children with the behaviours that they engage in so that they don’t feel ashamed of the body shape that they have.”

Conversations with her kids revolve around feeling good, rather than what they look like, says Redman-Jones. “We talk about how food is for fuelling the body and exercise is movement to keep us healthy.” Redman-Jones lets her children lead the discussions they have around body image, asking questions to find out what they’re thinking before adding to the narrative.

“I usually discuss body image with my kids when they raise something — perhaps they see something on television, or a friend of theirs has said something or sometimes it’s when they are getting dressed,” she says. “We talk a lot about people being different in shape, size, colour and ability, and how that makes the world an interesting place.”

If your child is self-conscious about their appearance, ensure they’ve got clothes that fit them comfortably and that they feel good in.

This appreciation of society’s diversity is also something Butler shares with her kids. “We talk a lot about celebrating everyone’s uniqueness, how great it is to be different and about the importance of kindness,” she says.

Her daughters also understand that what they see on television, the internet and in magazines aren’t always accurate depictions of what people look like. “We talk about how photos are usually airbrushed and even if some people look like that that it doesn’t mean we need to,” says Butler. “My husband and I make sure the girls know that if they care for their bodies they will be the most perfect version of themselves, not the perfect version of someone else.”

Helping with uncomfortable feelings

Even with the most positive parenting approach, your child may still develop body concerns. Perhaps your child has overheard negative body image talk at school, picked up on this messaging on television, has been teased or had a comment made about them (as was the case in Butler’s daughters’ restaurant lunch experience).

When uncomfortable feelings about their bodies arise, parents can help their children cope with these by talking with them about why they feel the way they do. Rowlands suggests other activities to help as well: “maybe it’s gentle movement, listening to music, doing art or having other things that can distract them from the feelings that they have.”

While sometimes uncomfortable feelings pass, other times they don’t — and when it comes to body image, being displeased with your appearance can lead to serious physical and mental illnesses. As a parent, look out for signs that an eating disorder, orthorexic behaviours or an exercise addiction may be developing.

“If a young person is constantly talking about their weight or their body, or they’re starting to play around with their food or their exercise as a way to manage those feelings, parents should be aware that this could be problematic,” advises Rowlands. “We want to make sure that we intervene sooner rather than later so that it doesn’t turn into disordered eating or an eating disorder.”

If your child is self-conscious about their appearance, ensure they have clothes that fit them comfortably and that they feel good in. Depending on the age of your child, let them have a say in what they wear and what colours and styles they opt for.

Read with your child

Another great way to open up conversation around the thoughts and feelings your child has about their body is to read with them. You can now find fantastic body positive books which can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. One such book, a favourite in Butler’s household, is Love Your Body (Five Mile, 2019) by Melbourne-based author and social worker Jessica Sanders.

Now sold in 25 territories, the picture book is the culmination of everything Sanders has been through. “I wrote it from my personal experience, but also I was aware of how the preoccupation with how you look, that constant self-objectification, dictated the behaviour of the women in my life as well.”

Constantly dieting as a teen, Sanders became fixated on her body. “I just wanted to be smaller, which is a really common experience for women,” she says. “If you don’t like how you look and you’re meant to fit into what is an impossible mould, it’s so hard to be happy with your body.” Having experienced the death of a friend due to an eating disorder, “I’ve also seen how it can completely derail a life,” says Sanders.

While looking for statistics around eating disorders, Sanders found that many start from primary school age. Unable to find a body positive book directly aimed at young girls, Sanders decided to write one herself. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she says. “When I went looking for the equivalent of Love Your Body and couldn’t find it, I knew my book would need really diverse bodies in it because when you go through puberty bodies don’t all change in the same way.”

Love Your Body, which features a diverse array of female characters, was written to empower young girls and help them appreciate their bodies. As well as being inspired by Sanders’ own experiences and those of the women around her, it draws on her postgraduate studies in gender and social work.

Reflecting on starting the writing process, Sanders recalls a conversation she had with her mother. “I asked her, ‘How do I write this? I’m not a writer!’ and she said, ‘What would you tell a young girl?’. I realised the big thing was that I did not want her to feel alone, like she was the only one going through it,” says Sanders. “Later you often find out that all your friends are dealing with similar things, but at the time it feels really lonely.”

Having also recently released a self-care book, Me Time (Five Mile, 2019), Sanders included self-care ideas in Love Your Body as well, such as the keeping of a gratitude list. “Rather than sitting with the negative emotions, I wanted to show examples of what you can do to feel better and to appreciate your body,” says Sanders, who is currently working on a sequel to Love Your Body for boys.

Cultivating your own body positivity

Butler reads Love Your Body to her girls, and Sanders says many of the fans of the picture book are adults. “I found a lot of women have been inspired by the book’s message, and if you want that for your child, why wouldn’t you want that for you too?” says Sanders.

“We encourage parents to reflect on their own body image,” recommends Rowlands. “It’s really hard to support a young person with their body image when we’re struggling ourselves as a parent. It’s really important to have an honest conversation about how you as a parent feel about your own body. Particularly for young people, what they see in their home environment around exercise, language towards bodies and food can have a really big impact positively or negatively, so of course we want that to be positive.”

Redman-Jones recalls feeling self-conscious about her body as a child and teenager. “I had brothers who would tease me about the way I looked and a mother who was always watching what she ate,” she says. “These messages have definitely had an impact on me and have certainly made me think about the dialogue I use with my children.”

It took having children for Butler to truly appreciate her body. “I look back on my younger self and am sad thinking about how much anxiety and heartbreak I wasted over feeling too fat when I could’ve been celebrating the beauty that was me,” says Butler.

Hip and back issues make exercising difficult for Butler, who says although she tells her daughters that she is larger than she could be due to lack of activity, she also points out how wonderful her body is. “Whenever my girls comment on my ‘squishiness’ I remark how great it makes me at cuddling, or if they comment on the sagging of my breasts, I tell them how grateful I am that they fed my two beautiful children,” she says.

The Butterfly Foundation is a helpful resource for eating disorders and body image issues. To find out more, visit thebutterflyfoundation.org.au. Love Your Body is stocked in bookshops across Australia or can be purchased online. 

Samantha Allemann

Samantha Allemann

Samantha Allemann is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor. She has written for a wide variety of publications over her career on some very diverse topics, all of which have taught her something new and connected her to people equally passionate about what they do. W: samantha-allemann.com

You May Also Like

Toddler To Teenager And Giving Them Room To Grow

Toddler to teenager and giving them room to grow

Baby And You Preparing For Great Health For You Both

Baby and you! Preparing for great health for you both

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2023 08 16t100954.155

Discover The Role of Play in Parent-Child Relationships

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2023 06 14t113459.830

7 ways to talk about sex