Do you remember summers at the beach as a small child? Your parents not being able to get your swimsuit on fast enough for you! How could anyone expect you to sit still with the excitement of running on the sand and playing in the water just moments away?
If you fast forward, can you remember the first time you were swimsuit-clad and your carefree excitement was replaced by hesitation? It may have been something as simple as a pause in the mirror or a few extra tugs at the elastic band of your suit before joining your friends, but there it was.
More than likely, you can’t remember it. Not the very first time that uncertainty or comparison of your body came to mind. That’s because so often it’s a slow transition that seems to just take over without notice. It’s as if a switch goes off during childhood or adolescence for so many, that tells them to question their body.
Look for signs of negative body image and be mindful about fostering a positive one.
One of the sweetest things about childhood is the innocence and pure outlook on life that only a child can hold with them. With changes in pop culture, technology and social media, it seems that the length of time children get to enjoy this blissful part of their lives grows shorter with each generation. There is so much pressure to look a certain way in society that even children as young as 4 and five years old have shown concern over body image.
While boys and girls naturally may begin being more private or shy about their bodies, it’s important to know the signs of true insecurity or body shame. These present themselves very differently and are not something to make light of, as they can lead to serious problems, such as eating disorders, self-harm and depression. Examples of this behavior may include things like being verbally or physically unkind to their bodies, avoiding activities that involve removing clothing, such as swimming or gym class or having a negative or fearful attitude towards food.
This is why being mindful and intentional about fostering a healthy and positive body image is so important in children and teens.
Be cautious when commenting on your own body and others.
There will always be arguments about “Nurture vs. Nature,” but when it comes to having a negative body image, many believe this is a learned behavior. Avoiding negative terms when referring to your own body can be one of your biggest tools to help your child not pick up the same habits. While it can be difficult for many women if they picture their child saying the same hurtful things about their own bodies that they say about theirs, it may help motivate them to be more cautious.
Another thing to consider is how often children grow up hearing how much they look like one of their parents. Imagine what happens in a child’s mind when they hear this, paired with the continuous comments from their mother or father about how “ugly,” “fat,” or “too skinny” they are.
Limiting negative self-talk will not only help reduce the influence it has on your impressionable child, but will also help you with your own body image. Remember to be kind to yourself!
Speak words of affirmation to them, not just on their appearance
In the book The Help, the character Aibileen repeats this phrase to the little girl she looks after, “You is kind, You is smart, You is important.” When you read that back, do you notice what words are not included? It’s important to note that she isn’t repeating a mantra on the child’s physical appearance whatsoever. There is no “You is beautiful” or “You is pretty” sentiment.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with telling your little boy how handsome he is or your daughter how cute she is! Additionally, pointing out how strong, smart, fast, determined, funny and kind they are is an important thing to be mindful of. Positive affirmations of children that don’t have to do with their appearance can be empowering and help them concentrate on more than just their bodies.
Reinforce and encourage positivity as the years go on
Children and teenagers may find themselves more judgmental of their own bodies (and those of their peers) as they get older. Any adult can confirm that the act of questioning oneself and dealing with insecurities in their appearance doesn’t get any easier, just because they’ve reached adulthood. The reality is that the relationship you have with your body evolves, just like that with many other parts of you. There may be seasons of self-acceptance followed by seasons of insecurity.
It’s important to emphasize that no matter how your child views his or her body, encouragement and even creating conversation around body image should continue over time.