Do parents have a responsibility to develop a healthy body image?

 

I would say the answer to this question is a resounding YES. Yes, for two fundamental reasons. The first is to ensure that as a parent you engender a healthy body image in your children. The second is because as a society we need to stop the fat shaming and discrimination that is pervasive in the Western world.

Let me talk about the first point. As we all know, parents are role models for their children. This is both amazingly powerful and downright terrifying in equal measure. We can have a strong desire for our children to embrace their bodies and have a healthy sense of self, but is this possible if we, as parents, do not hold the same values for our own body? Can we expect our children to be body embracers if they see us looking in the mirror and sighing, standing on scales and slumping or saying that we are too fat? The answer is clearly no – if children see their parents acting in a manner that indicates that they do not like their body, those children are much more likely to be critical of their body. Is it such a big deal? Of course it is. Poor body image increases the chances of developing depression, anxiety, eating disorders and use of anabolic steroids.
So, what can we do to protect our children as much as possible from poor body image?
I suggest that we start with our own body image:

  • Start by becoming extremely mindful of what we say to our children or in front of our children.
  • Become mindful of what we do or how we act in front of our children.
  • Commit to working on our own body image issues by not talking negatively about our body at all.
  • Stop the family talking negatively about anyone’s body and do not allow the family to engage in teasing about physical characteristics of anyone else.
  • Don’t stand on the scales and don’t engage in calorie restrictive diets.
  • Do let your children see that you are comfortable in your own body.
  • Do engage in fun physical activities with the kids.
  • Do present lots of differing food options and talk to your kids about recognising how different foods makes their body feel.
  • Do talk to kids about the fact that as human beings we all come in different shapes and sizes.

We need to ensure that our children can feel comfortable with their body no matter what shape and size they are, so they are equipped to embark on a life of health and wellness, not weight cycling and low self esteem.

 

The second point is about trying to engender societal level change. As a society, racism, sexism and homophobia are now completely unacceptable. Why then do we accept “fatism” as being OK? Why do we allow television shows to shame larger people into wanting to be smaller? This has nothing to do with health; it is all about shame and guilt. The evidence from psychological literature is that shame and guilt have never been successful motivators for change. If we feel ashamed of ourselves or guilty about our weight, we will not successfully be able to engage in wellness activities. If we are permitted to feel good about ourselves regardless of size, we can begin to focus on health and wellness. It is not OK that there are countless people in our society who feel too ashamed to eat in public because they perceive that they will be judged. It is not OK that there are countless people in our society who cannot get employment because of their size. Weight discrimination is not OK and we can only hope that our children are able to be more accepting than we are, and that our children can accept size diversity better than we can.

 

Dr Emma Johnston is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice.  Author of the best-seller e-book  “The Body Lovin Guide“, she also has the privileged role of co-presenting seminars “Developing Daughters/Supporting Sons” with the Founder of the Body Image Movement, and author, Taryn Brumfitt.