We hear a lot about body image (especially around summer time). These 4 tips can help your child develop a positive relationship with their body.

Body image is the way a person thinks and feels about their own body. It develops from the things we see and hear, comments made by others, beliefs, lived experiences, comments about one’s own body, comments about other’s bodies, photos, advertisements, exposure to limited bodies, and more.

Body image is part of the natural development in childhood, as children start to recognize their body. It is a neutral understanding until there’s significance placed on those looks.

Stages of developing body image:

  • “Nose” (object)
  • “My nose” (object as mine)
  • “your nose” (object as yours)
  • “your nose is smaller than mine” (comparison)
  • “your nose is smaller than mine and that’s somehow meaningful” (comparison with social or cultural significance)

This happens at a young age. Children at 3 first recognize their body as “theirs”, and the desire for thinness in females, and muscularity in males soon follows; think as young as age 5-7 and onwards.

The following are true scenarios:

  • A 10-year-old describes how she poses on camera, so her legs look slimmer
  • A 5-year-old tells his grandparent he’s not fat so he should be able to be carried
  • An 11-year-old feels anxiety at the end of camp because she knows she’s gained weight over the season
  • An 8-year-old wears a cover up to the in-door pool and won’t take it off
  • A 9-year-old speaks of doing sit ups at night, so he’ll look good the next day…

And unfortunately, I’m sure you can think of other examples of how young children are demonstrating their unhappiness with their appearance.

Where are children getting these ideas from?

They see and hear adults speaking and acting this way and it becomes a part of them. Why wouldn’t a child weigh themselves if they see their parent doing it daily? How can he learn to love how he looks when all he hears around him is body criticism, shame, comparisons etc.? And it’s pervasive! The world is obsessed with dieting and weight loss, and the pursuit of “feeling better about your body by changing it”.

How you can help your child develop a positive body image

See your child as more than a body

It’s easy to look at kids and focus on their physical; “you’re so cute”, “you’ve grown so much” “What a pretty little girl” “such a handsome boy” etc.  Comments like this reinforce that we care about the child because of their appearance, and they become more aware of their body and how they look. Focusing on other parts that make them special can go a long way in helping a child recognize what’s most important. You’re a caring friend; you’re so good with your younger siblings; you have a nice singing voice; you set the table so creatively… take the focus off how they look, onto what they can do.

Recognize what your body does not what it looks like

Children see and hear even when we don’t realize, and then they copy us! Try to model (at least) a neutral body relationship. Talk about the neat things your body does; take you from one place to another, kick a ball really far, create and birth a baby, keep you from getting sick, telling you when you’re hungry… There’s so much wonder to focus on when it comes to bodies, try not to talk negatively about your own or others’ body, diets or weight loss. And if you’re not ready to get rid of your scale, at least hide it and limit your weighing to when kids aren’t around.

Develop hobbies for positive body image

Not sure what to talk about with kids? Try new activities with them, read books together, or just ask them what’s going on in their lives. Hobbies are a great way for kids to develop new skills, focus on enjoyable activities that aren’t body-focused, and gain a sense of accomplishment. When kids have a sense of self, and a level of self-confidence, that’s protective against developing a negative self-image and disordered eating.

Exposure to different body types

When kids see different types of bodies, they learn that they can also look different. Help them realize that “beauty” isn’t reserved to a specific body appearance. You can do this by exposing them to different body types with dolls that come in different sizes and skin tones, book that show a variety of body types (bonus if the point of the book isn’t weight!), seeing people of different body types, and not comparing them to the “standard look of accepted beauty”.

Let children see and know that there are so many different ways to have a body, and they’re all good! Teach them to recognize that they’re more than a body, and they (and everyone) have something special to offer the world, regardless of how they look.

Much of the information is from the course Body Image Training by Fiona Sutherland & Marci Evans