Body positivity. Body appreciation. Intermittent fasting. Clean eating. Keto friendly. Flat Tummy Tea. Bikini body.
You probably have seen these buzzwords and phrases all over Instagram captions, internet headlines, and shows like Dr. Oz. But how often do we question whether it’s helpful or harmful, and further, what we should possibly be shielding impressionable children and adolescents from?
The truth is, the societal obsession with thinness can have some really harmful consequences for young people. Unfortunately, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating are common. About 56% of adolescents report being dissatisfied with their weight (Xu et al., 2018) and over half of girls report engaging in dieting and other unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g. fasting or skipping meals). An estimated 8-10% of those girls further report extreme weight control behaviors (e.g. taking diet pills or laxative for weight control or vomiting) and binge eating (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2011). The prevalence of these maladaptive behaviors increases during the transition to young adulthood.
Fortunately, psychological research gives us some insight as to how and how not to help children and adolescents foster a positive body image and a positive relationship with food. Here are some do’s and don’ts!
DON’T talk about your child’s weight
Families, and especially parents, often talk about their children’s weight in ways that are stigmatizing, regardless of intention. Weight-based comments, like pointing out that one’s child is too big or gaining weight, are associated with disordered eating behaviors in young adults (Eisenberg et al., 2012). Weight talk from mothers, in particular, is associated with a daughter’s depression, use of unhealthy weight control behaviors, and binge eating (Bauer et al., 2013). Encouragement to diet can also be harmful as it is associated with body dissatisfaction (Wertheim et al., 2002) and symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa (Hillard et al., 2016). While it may be done in good faith, under the pretense of health promotion, diet messaging implies to children that they need to lose weight. In fact, young women express that when they were urged to go on a diet by their mothers, they understood that it meant that they were seen as fat or overweight, and that it was bad, even if it was not explicitly said (Maor, 2012). Importantly, experiencing parental encouragement to diet follows adolescents into adulthood — one study found that those who were encouraged to diet by their parents in adolescence were more likely to experience the following in adulthood 15 years later: dieting, binge eating, unhealthy weight control behaviors, and lower body satisfaction (Berge et al., 2018).
DON’T talk negatively about your own body or other bodies in front of children
Hearing parents and trusted adults speak negatively about their own bodies can send clear messages to children about what types and shapes of bodies are “acceptable” or “desirable.” Children as young as 3 years old associate larger bodies with more negative characteristics (Carvalho et al., 2021; Spiel et al., 2012). Unfortunately, when children hold anti-fat beliefs and associate large bodies with more negative characteristics, they can internalize those beliefs and start applying negative stereotypes and feelings about those in larger bodies to themselves (Pearl & Puhl, 2016), leading to eating concerns and body dissatisfaction.
DON’T discuss diets or dieting
While dieting is common and seemingly “healthy,” many dieting approaches are also considered to be disordered patterns of eating (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2011). Regardless of whether comments about weight and dieting are directed at children and adolescents, even being in the presence of family members who are and who value dieting can be harmful. For higher weight children, those who have parents that make any dietary changes aimed at weight loss, such as limiting carbohydrates or using fad diets, have a 2.5 increased likelihood of engaging in an unhealthy weight control behavior (e.g. purging or fasting), and three times increased likelihood of using methods like calorie counting or weight-loss programs to control weight (Cromley et al., 2010). Parents’ weight control behaviors also influence their children’s beliefs about their own weight and shape: parents’ use of weight-loss strategies is associated with lower body dissatisfaction and increased drive for thinness for their children (Cromley et al., 2010).
DO teach media literacy
Whether it’s television, movies, or social media, young people are bombarded with stereotypes about people with larger bodies and the worship of those in thin ones. Media literacy, or “the ability of a citizen to access, analyze, and produce information [about media]” (Aufderheide & Firestone, 1993), can help children and adolescents make informed judgements about the content that’s presented to them. School-based media health literacy programs lead to improvements in body image and eating concerns (Zuair & Sopory, 2020). Media literacy also helps young people to be less vulnerable to the influence of the media and makes them aware of the common motivation of media: profit (for example, influencers marketing diet pills or meal-replacement shakes) (McLean et al., 2016).
DO normalize all bodies
Bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes! Show children that having a bigger body or being fat is natural and that people who are deserve the same amount of respect as thinner people. You can do so by, for example, buying Barbies in new and diverse sizes, or showing them movies or TV shows that have positive representation of fat characters.
When discussing food, DO focus on nutrition and the function of the foods in your body, and teach & allow children to eat intuitively
When we treat certain foods as “good” or “bad,” it sets up a black and white view about what is healthy or even morally acceptable. That in turn can lead to the persistent avoidance of certain foods and/or dieting, both of which are associated with adverse outcomes for mental and physical health. Instead, allow children and adolescents to eat a variety of foods and encourage them to listen intuitively to their own hunger cues. When discussing nutrition, focus on how certain foods can help our body’s function, rather than demonizing foods deemed “unhealthy.” For example, one study taught 4 – 5 year old children about food in a way that was understandable, such as telling them that their bodies needs a whole lot of different nutrients in order to carry out all of the functions that helps them live every day, and that just one kind of food would not give them the nutrients their bodies need (Gripshover & Markman, 2013). This helped children understand nutrition without demonizing certain food groups. Additionally, one study of high school students showed that adolescents involved in an Intuitive Eating education program gained more positive attitudes about food (Healy et al., 2015).
The moral of the story is this: There are countless influences (e.g. movies, TV, and social media) that are harmful to young people’s body image and self-esteem. Teaching them to be critical about what they are consuming and setting a positive example regarding acceptance of all body shapes and sizes can help to protect against the consequences of exposure to those influences.
Aufderheide, P., & Firestone, C. M. (1993). Media literacy : a report of the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy. Communications and Society Program, the Aspen Institute.
Bauer, K. W., Bucchianeri, M. M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Mother-reported parental weight talk and adolescent girls’ emotional health, weight control attempts, and disordered eating behaviors. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1(1), 45. https://doi.org/10.1186/2050-2974-1-45
Berge, J. M., Winkler, M. R., Larson, N., Miller, J., Haynos, A. F., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of parent encouragement to diet from adolescence into adulthood. Pediatrics, 141(4). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2017-2955
Carvalho, K., Peretz-Lange, R., & Muentener, P. (2021). Causal Explanations for Weight Influence Children’s Social Preferences: Biological-Essentialist Explanations Reduce, and Behavioral Explanations Promote, Preferences for Thin Friends. Child Development, 00(0), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13519
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Xu, F., Cohen, S. A., Greaney, M. L., & Greene, G. W. (2018). The Association between US Adolescents’ Weight Status, Weight Perception, Weight Satisfaction, and Their Physical Activity and Dietary Behaviors. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(9). https://doi.org/10.3390/IJERPH15091931
Zuair, A. A., & Sopory, P. (2020). Effects of Media Health Literacy School-Based Interventions on Adolescents’ Body Image Concerns, Eating Concerns, and Thin-Internalization Attitudes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Health Communication, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2020.1813954