But why is body image a concern? Body image affects both emotional and physical health. It is closely related to self-esteem. It impacts behaviors such as food choices, physical activity, smoking, relationships and even career paths.
People with poor body image are less likely to make healthy lifestyle choices. They frequently try to change what they look like in unhealthy, and often dangerous, ways. Some smoke, use fad diets or take diet pills or muscle building powders and drugs, while others resort to fasting and purging.
Body dissatisfaction is an increasing problem for both men and women. Children as young as eight to 10 years old are dieting. Many young Canadians are using steroids to change the way they look. Should we be concerned? Yes, indeed.
Parents affect what children do and children learn by example. When parents express frequent concerns about their own weight and diet or exercise too much, children tend to copy these behaviors. Parents should communicate that personality and individuality are more important than physical appearance.
Parents may need to work on their own body image issues, self-concept and judgments about weight before they can be healthy role models. This is worth the time and effort. After all, what we do and say forms our future generations.
Body image is influenced by more than just parents. Other adults, such as relatives, teachers and coaches, can affect body image. Comments from other children, teasing and bullying, growth and physical change, and media messages and other influences from society also have an effect.
Much has been said about the negative messages on television, in movies and on the airways. 'Ideal' women are often shown to be thin, glamorous, successful, beautiful and wealthy. On the other hand, 'ideal men are shown to be strong and muscular. Unfortunately, this gives the distorted view that you need to be beautiful or strong to be happy and successful. Underlying it all is a promise that to have a perfect body will solve all your problems. You can’t insulate your children from these warped messages. You can teach them to examine and evaluate what they hear and see, taking the power away from the media.
Comments from others, including teasing and bullying, have a long-term impact on how people feel about their bodies. In an effort to encourage healthy eating and exercise, parents sometimes comment on their children’s weight. Parents do this with good intentions, but this can be damaging to self-esteem. Teasing and bullying by siblings or other children is equally harmful and should not be allowed. Schools and public places should have a zero tolerance policy for put-downs and criticism and unfair treatment based on size and weight. It is important to discuss teasing with your children and help them to develop strategies to deal with situations that might arise.
Puberty, a key developmental phase, can be a confusing time for children, especially concerning their body image. People have the least defence against negative body image messages when going through times of growth or change. Children need to understand that normal changes to their bodies are good, not bad. Chronic illness or serious injury also make children sensitive to negative body image messages. It is especially important at these times to focus on a child’s strengths rather than limitations.
Our media-driven culture values youth and beauty. It is important to explain the difference between what we as a society value, and what we personally value. The North American culture promotes size and weight judgments and prejudice. Like other forms of discrimination, this is harmful. As individuals, we need to think how we are affected. As parents, we need to think about how this is affecting our children. Talking about these concerns is the first step in taking apart these prejudices.
Body image can be shaped and is always changing. With this in mind, it is important that healthy messages be similar and repeated often. It is hard work to build and maintain a positive body image – but the rewards are well worth it. Parents can promote a positive body image by helping their children develop an accurate picture of themselves. They can endorse healthy living, reinforce positive actions and establish open communication.
Discuss your family’s physical traits. We inherit our frame size and, to a degree, our body weight. Take out your family photo album or even stand in front of the mirror with your children. Talk about the positives and negatives in an honest discussion. Everyone will have parts of their body they like and those they feel more negative about. Having an accurate picture of one’s body sets the stage for accepting it and feeling positive about it.
Eat well, be active and relax. Healthy living means eating healthy foods, keeping active and taking the time to relax and smell the roses. We all feel more positive about ourselves when we are eating well and being active. Have healthy food available in your home. Avoid labeling food as either good or bad. Instead, think of everyday foods (milk, fruits, vegetables, meats and grains) and once-in-a-while foods (such as desserts, candy or chocolate bars). Let children eat according to their hunger whenever possible. Avoid using food as a punishment or reward, as this sets food up to be a potential weapon later on.
Be active together. Keeping active improves body image for everyone in the family. Why not be active together? Set aside time each week to do family activities. Relaxation is equally important. Children need to have permission to relax and find ways to nourish their souls. Often children are so busy with school and extra-curricular activities that they have little chance to relax. Take away the hyper-stimulation for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Have them listen to soothing music, take a warm bath or a read a book. Scheduling down time into everyone’s day nurtures the spirit. Healthy living builds healthy children.
Set a good example. Don’t talk negatively about your body. Instead, portray a feeling of being comfortable with yourself. Participate in a variety of activities, such as swimming – yes, that does mean putting on a bathing suit! Practice positive self-talk. Try saying “I really enjoyed that salad. It makes me feel good when I put healthy food into my body. I’m worth it.” Or “I can’t wait to try out my new running shoes. Do you want to come for a walk with me?”
Fad diets don’t work. They are actually the best way to gain weight. Children learn by example. If you diet, they are more likely to diet. However, if you eat healthy foods and follow Canada’s Food Guide, they are more likely to eat healthily.
Reinforce positive messages. It is important to encourage your children to value themselves. Keep in mind, it is not only marks in school that will help them to be successful in life. Creative expressions, like singing, dancing, drawing or playing an instrument develop a positive sense of self and provide an outlet for emotions. Encourage children to try different activities and concentrate on enjoying them, not on how good they are at them. We all need activities that bring us joy and satisfaction.
Be supportive. Sometimes children feel like they must be the best, or perfect, in order to get approval from their parents. Children need to know you are proud of them and that you value them. For instance, the child who scores a goal during a hockey game typically gets a lot of positives. What about the other children on the ice? Try not to give praise for being the best. Say instead, “I really enjoyed coming to this game. It was wonderful to sit and watch you do something you enjoy. You seemed like you were having fun. Tell me what you found the most exciting about the game tonight.” Children who know their parents value spending time with them will develop a stronger sense of self-worth and a more positive body image.
Communicate. Develop a system for open communication with your children. Set aside some time each day to review what everyone’s experiences have been that day. The evening meal is a great time to reconnect. Let everyone have a chance to talk. Develop good listening skills. Taking time to listen to your children makes them feel that what they have to say is important and builds self-confidence.
Body image is a very big concern for many young people today. Support each other as a family, live healthy lifestyles and develop a positive body image.