How to Talk to Your Child About Body Image

One of the trickiest conversations you may have with your child is about the f-word—fat. Learn how to have productive conversations about weight.

Amanda Martinez Beck and her family of four children, ages 2 to 7, were having supper at home in Longview, Texas when the topic was brought up. When Brennan, her 5-year-old son, asked her, “Mommy, what do you eat?” she answered honestly. This is why: “Because you’re overweight.” Lily, her seven-year-old daughter, added, “Kids at school said it’s horrible to be obese.”

The four-letter term. Martinez Beck has struggled with this problem all her life. When she was younger, numerous members of her huge Cuban-American family remarked on her disproportionately massive frame. She started dieting at the tender age of seven and battled anorexia and bulimia all through her teenage years. According to Martinez Beck, “my abuela was a really powerful woman who got five kids out of Cuba.” “Furthermore, she was quite judgmental of my appearance and that of every female relative. Her enormous meals were met with embarrassment, which only added to their heaviness. Eat, but don’t grow fat was the implied message.”

Martinez Beck, who documented her journey in the book Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me, hopes that her children would not have the same self-esteem issues. She explains to her kids that it’s only natural for people to be different sizes. But internalizing that lesson can be challenging when external influences like culture, the media, and family members give a separate message. She has the same challenges as other Latina mothers who want to instill healthy lifestyle habits while encouraging their children to love and appreciate their bodies.

It may seem tough to converse with your kids about their body image, but finding the proper tone will make it much easier. Let me explain.

Begin With The Smallest Possible Step

Being overweight has serious consequences for one’s health and social life. Twenty-five percent of Latino youths between the ages of seven and seventeen are clinically obese, according to the Office of Minority Health of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The Latino community is experiencing a triple whammy of rising obesity, eating disorder, and low body image rates. Latino fifth students were shown to have lower levels of body positivity than white fifth graders in a study. Also, compared to 24% of white pupils, nearly 50% of Latino students were already dieting.

According to experts, it is the responsibility of parents, not pediatricians, educators, or coaches, to help youngsters develop a healthy body image. Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, states, “Kids don’t automatically pick up on how to tie their shoes or clean their teeth; we have to teach them.” You can tackle the challenging tasks gradually over time.

The first step is teaching kids that it’s normal for some people to be bigger or rounder than others.

Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, says, “While obesity obviously might entail health hazards, people actually do come in many different sizes.” It’s possible that heavier people can be physically fit, just as it’s possible that thinner people can’t.

Careless Weighing Is Stressing the Scale

The University of Minnesota researchers discovered that adolescents whose parents emphasized their weight or size while discussing food (e.g., “Don’t eat that or you’ll get fat!”) were more likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors like fasting, binge eating, or the use of laxatives.

Teenagers whose parents did not discuss their weight and instead focused entirely on the nutritional value of foods were less likely to develop eating disorders. Additionally, mood, psychological, and disordered eating issues were less common among overweight children whose parents took a nonjudgmental and health-focused approach when discussing food with them.

As a pediatric metabolism and weight-management specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Seema Kumar, M.D., tries to avoid discussing weight directly with her obese pediatric patients and refrains from telling them how many pounds they need to shed. I’ll tell them, “We are making these adjustments to your family because we care about your health.” Their positive decisions, such as choosing to ride their bike to school rather than sitting in front of the TV, have earned me praise.

It’s true that sometimes you just can’t get away from the scale. During routine checks, pediatricians will typically show children where they stand in terms of height and weight on appropriate charts. Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, chief clinical education officer and senior medical director of child and adolescent programs at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, argues that discussing weight doesn’t have to be fraught or uncomfortable. Use these opportunities to remind your children that weight is just one indicator of health, as recommended by Dr. Bermudez. We shouldn’t make talking about weight a taboo subject, he argues. However, you should consult your child’s pediatrician if your youngster is very sensitive about his or her weight and you feel uneasy discussing the topic in front of him.

Put An End To Body-Shaming Comments

However, what you say in front of your children about yourself and other people, such as celebrities, can be just as influential. Saying things like “I look gigantic in these jeans” or “Did you see how fat that lady is?” is discouraged by Dr. Puhl. This may cause your children to question your body image and self-acceptance.

Conversely, even supportive remarks about one’s physical appearance might be harmful. Dr. Bermudez warns about the unintended consequences of comments like “Gee, you look terrific, you shed some weight.” A vulnerable youngster may reason, “Oh, people would like me better if I’m slim.”

How should one respond while discussing physical dimensions? A neutral one. Dr. Fleisig recommends that parents respond to their children’s comments that someone is overweight by pointing out another positive physical trait, such as saying, “Yep, and she has ten fingers and ten toes.”

You may try to avoid the subject of weight entirely, but someone like Abuela may bring it up anyhow. UCLA found that a child who is labeled fat by an adult in their life, whether it be a parent, sibling, friend, or teacher, has a higher risk of being obese by the age of 10. So, establish clear limits with loved ones: no more weight-related comments, even if they’re meant lovingly. Avoiding the phrase “You’re mistaken” is crucial. Dr. Bermudez advises simply explaining that discussions of weight might be harmful in the modern world in which children are growing up. Nicknames are “so commonplace” in our society, he continues. And there is no malice intended. A child may internalize the negative connotation of words like “chubby” or “pudgy” if they are used repeatedly.

Show Compassion

As an example of the societal bias that “fat equals bad,” consider the number of villains in children’s media (such as “The Little Mermaid”) who are overweight. Dr. Puhl advises parents to embrace the opportunity presented by a character being stereotyped or criticized for her physical appearance to explain to their child why such behavior is unacceptable. “Put forth inquiries like, ‘Is there a correlation between a person’s size and their disposition toward others?’ “If you were the main character, how would you react to constant weight-related jokes? Can you imagine how you’d feel if you saw someone being bullied because they were overweight like this character was?”

Empathy training is another weapon in the fight against weight-related discrimination. Dr. Puhl recommends instituting a rule whereby everyone in the household is required to treat others with dignity and respect.

Together with her loved ones, Martinez Beck is working tirelessly on this issue. She regularly reinforces the message that “All bodies are good bodies” to her children, including her own, and she does so without passing judgment.

Eventually, they’ll get it. The oldest Beck children, Lily and Brennan, recently discovered a bathroom scale at their grandparents’ house, although Martinez Beck does not own one. We constantly make fun of Brennan for being so large and tall, but when Lily discovers that she weighs more than him on the scale, she declares, “Ha, I beat you.” The memory of Martinez Beck. Each victory I have in improving my children’s self-perception of their bodies helps me to go closer to my goal of creating a better world for them to grow up in.

Meaningful articles you might like: What Parents Must Know About Body Checking, How to Discuss Body Image with Children, Why media exposure damages teens’ body image!