Guide: Raising Body-Positive Kids
Our latest 'Growing Up' column
Like it or not, kids encounter plenty of negative messages about their size, shape, and weight. By third grade, most don’t like their body; a 2017 study of kids ages 9 to 12 found that 76 percent were dissatisfied with their shape. Want to send your kids a different message about their beauty, worth, and wellness? Enter body positivity, a social movement rooted in the idea that everyone deserves to love their body.
0-5: Model behavior
During early childhood, kids look to parents and primary caregivers for messages about beauty, fitness, and health. They watch how we talk about our own bodies and those around us, says certified integrative nutritionist and health coach Jayne Williams of Longwood, Florida. “You are your child’s best role model,” she says. “Use exercise and food as a tool to ‘stay healthy’ and not to ‘be skinny’ or ‘lose weight’ which can cause negative stigmas and ideas that translate into body image issues.” Instead of talking about diets or expressing unhappiness with your body in front of your children, use empowering, body positive language like “See how strong mommy is?,” “I’m choosing foods that make me feel good,” or “Daddy is working on getting healthier!”
6-12: Group on
By age 6 or 7, children become aware of society’s negative ideas about body size and shape. But this budding social awareness can also have a positive impact, especially when children hear body positive messages from those around them. “I advise parents to be proactive instead of reactive in putting these supports in place,” says licensed therapist Ashley Shaw, LCSW, Owner of 3C Wellness in Charlotte, North Carolina. Shaw also serves as a mentor for G.I.I.R.L. On The Go, a leadership development group for girls in 4th through 12th grade and says sports participation can support a positive body image. Even kids who aren’t athletically inclined can benefit from joining a “team.” Social groups that celebrate movement, mindfulness, leadership, and empowerment can provide body positive role models and help counter negative messages linking self-worth to body size.
13-18: Celebrate movement
For teens, particularly those involved in athletics, exercise can get lost on a list of should-dos. Activities that were once fun, like jogging at the park, shooting hoops with friends, or swimming at the local pool, are wrapped in performance statistics and expectations. Encourage your teen to commit to weekly movement that’s not tied to a goal. Physical activity driven by your teen’s own interests—instead of an adult’s directives—fuels joy, promotes body positivity, and encourages a healthy habit of self-care. Support your teen in trying a new exercise like stand-up paddle boarding, rock climbing, or yoga, or set a family goal to hike, jog, or swim together once a month. “Approach exercise as a tool to help your body feel good, move well, and do all the things you want to do in life,” Williams says. “Plus, it’s just fun to do something you love!”
MALIA JACOBSON is a health and family journalist.