This article is one that I originally wrote for the October 2014 edition of Paleo Living Magazine and can be found here. I am reposting it after publication here, because this is an issue that is really an important topic for parents and families. As parents our primary responsibility to is nurture tomorrows generation of adults, this is a responsibility that I take very seriously, but also one that can seem daunting.
Raising kids is hard, no doubt. It is also rewarding, without question. Today I am sitting here thinking about an issue that isn’t exclusive to Paleo, nor is it even exclusive to parenting. It affects both males and females, the most and least healthy of individuals pretty equally. I’m talking about body image, how we see and treat ourselves, from negative self talk to unrealistic perception. Everyone, even the most outwardly confident among us, have moments of self consciousness and doubt.
I have two daughters and one son, each is very unique in their personality, likes and dislikes, and strengths and weaknesses. All of my children are beautiful, unique and talented in their own right. As a parent, I try to be cognizant of the example I set in all things. That includes body image. I try never to let my children see me measure or weigh myself, complain about my body, or talk negatively about myself. Let’s face it, those things have become so ingrained in our culture, it’s sometimes even hard to realize we are doing it.
A few weeks ago, I was standing in my master bathroom and, without any thought, criticized my arms. I hadn’t even realized that my oldest daughter was standing in the room watching me stare at myself in the mirror. When I looked up and saw her standing there, I was mortified. I struggled with what to explain, or would more words make things worse? In a 9-year-old mind, what does she see?
Back up even further, about 3 months ago, my youngest daughter (age 5) came home from preschool in tears. When I asked her what was wrong, she said her teacher told her she was “too skinny”. The next day, I talked to her teacher, who obviously in our warped sense of reality, believed she was complimenting her. It happens all the time, but no one even notices what words fall out of their mouths.
We underestimate the impact this phenomenon has on boys too. We assume boys don’t suffer from the same body image or self loathing that we place on girls beginning at such young ages. Yet, I can tell you that my son has been told he’s too skinny, too tall, too muscular, too boney… and that’s all just by his grandparents! Again, they don’t notice their condescending phrases until my husband and I get involved.
I feel like my full time job is to run interference. As a society we cast blame on the fitness industry, advertising, television, toy makers, the food industry and a number of other places, people and things.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of attention brought to body image, but what, as parents do we do to give our kids the best fighting chance at preventing or overcoming these issues? According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 40 to 60 percent of elementary school girls (ages 6 to 12) are concerned about becoming too fat or gaining weight. Also according toNEDA, 10 million men suffer from a “diagnosable eating disorder.”
A 2014 study out of Boise State University found that college men who developed bulimia were often striving for a lean and muscular appearance. I was talking with a male friend one day this week about exactly this. Like me, he is a parent. When I commented that I look in the mirror and am programmed to see my faults, he confided that men do the same. I hadn’t given it a whole lot of thought until he described his own fears, which included not being muscular enough, having a “gut”, the proportion between the width of his shoulders and waist (narrow waist to broad shoulders), etc. If our heads are so consumed with our physical appearance, how do we save our kids from certain doom?
8 Steps to a Healthy Body Image for Your Kids
1. As trite as this sounds, we have to start with us. Every piece of information I’ve studied has said “don’t criticize your body in front of your child.” There has to be more to this. We have to learn to accept and love ourselves so that we can actually teach our kids to do the same. I am immersed in this right now, learning to really love myself. Using meditation, reading books, creating mantras and affirmations, checking myself regularly, focusing on how truly incredible my body is. The best advice I’ve received in this has been from my dear friend Kendall Kendrick of Primal Balance, who told me to “fake it, until I make it” – just keep telling myself I love myself until finally, I do.
2. Avoid negativity surrounding food. From a Paleo perspective this is actually a little tricky, since we talk about the damaging effects of grains, inflammation and leaky gut in terms of dietary restriction. How do we not push this to the point of orthorexia? How do we formulate this discussion in terms of health, not physical appearance? Exactly like that. We aren’t dieting, children don’t need to be repeating the mantra “fat doesn’t make you fat, carbs do.” That said, it is important that our kids understand food as fuel, quality, nutrition and choices. I think we discuss honestly and openly our food choices from a health perspective with our kids instead of trying to shelter them. I often discuss the marketing strategies of food-like products; my kids get it.
3. Be positive, praise and let your children hear you be proud of their talents and accomplishments. I very much remember feeling as a child like I wasn’t beautiful, I didn’t fit the mold of beauty and I was constantly compared to my sister. It’s only been recently that I really understood the scope to which I had internalized that and it limited me now in adulthood. For my children I believe they are all beautiful, but they are more than that, they are smart, athletic, kind, compassionate, smart and talented. They are unique in many ways and we say ALL those things out loud! Nothing breaks my heart more than to hear my children criticize themselves. In our house things like stupid, dumb, ugly, are simply not permitted, not to describe oneself or someone else.
4. Eliminate the concept of perfection – embracing each child’s uniqueness whether their accomplishments or physical differences is very important. There is no such thing as a perfect person or perfect body. As a former perfectionist, this is a major struggle for me. The teaching point I can share with you is that embracing imperfection doesn’t mean not striving to improve, it means letting go of expectations. One day, I looked in the mirror and realized that I didn’t even think I’d recognize the “perfect body” that I coveted if I saw it – because it would really never be good enough. That came from my own unrealistic expectations.
5. When your kids express concerns about body image, talk about it. Don’t dismiss it, don’t avoid it. Let it be openly communicated. Silence only creates more confusion, communication creates a situation of empowerment. You’ll need to be consistent too, don’t lose your patience. Kids go through a host of insecurities caused by media, other children, their own expectations, bullying, hormones and their own bodily changes. This is confusing and scary and requires the 3 Cs of parenthood: Compassion, Consistency and Communication.
6. Get Physical, be active. This isn’t to hammer home exercise as a weight control, but to promote healthy habits. I’m talking about play, sports, fun, recreation, family activities. Encourage variety and participate as a family, let your child find the activities that they enjoy.
7. Focus on the capability of our bodies… to run, jump, lift, dance, to be strong, to create life (childbirth). As a woman and a mother, my body is truly an incredible thing. I have raised three healthy babies, created an environment designed to nurture life within myself. Now, I have learned that my body has physical strengths I couldn’t have imagined at nearly 40 years old. I’m climbing trees and playing with my kids, lifting weights, swimming and so much more.
8. Talk about the media images, those toy makers, advertisers and the other barrage of images that kids may see on television, in movies and throughout their day. These things won’t necessarily go away, but again silence only gives power to those images, communication gives power to your kids! Explain that these images are computerized, enhanced, changed and just not realistic.
Above all else, know that your kids primary role model is YOU.