Body Image Issues: How not to pass them down.
Have you ever looked at your beautiful children, watched how effortlessly they move their bodies, how the very act of taking off their clothes before tubby, being free in their own skin seems to give them a “high on life”. How once they learn to dress themselves they just pull the clothes over their little limbs and off they go. Have you ever watched them and silently hoped you could prevent passing down your body image issues; that they would never have to view their bodies through the hateful lens you view your own through? Me…too. So many times.
In fact, almost a year ago, a few weeks into another Whole30, I remember my daughter asked me why I wasn’t going to have the cake at the birthday party. I lied and said I just wasn’t hungry. Her 5-year-old face distorted with disapproval as she seemed already suspicious at my answer.
Later that night, when all had gone to bed, I ate just one piece of halloween candy, every ten minutes for about an hour…vowing to myself at each piece, it would be the last. As I sat in my own hole of shame, I knew in that moment I was running out of time to change things for her, that at only five I knew it was me and my disordered eating rules that she was watching very closely. I thought back to this dove campaign I saw several years ago, which talked about the beauty legacy you would leave to your children. Well, what was mine going to be?
One of the reasons I became a mom was because I wanted to be that role model of a strong woman. I wanted to be instrumental in teaching my children to go out there and accomplish their dreams but now here I was at the ball drop to the big game and I realized I just didn’t know how not to pass down these body image issues. How can you teach a book you have not read?
It was becoming clear to me that if I wanted something different for them, I had to learn to live a different life for myself now. Because what I was doing, hating my body, going on and off highly restrictive diets that led to binge eating, just wasn’t working. That is when I started my journey with Intuitive Eating.
This article is for those mothers out there, that silently struggle with food and body image issues, but want a better life for their children. Who are painfully aware their own relationship with their bodies is a sad one, but aside from not talking about food and body altogether, don’t know what to say to prevent their children from having the same body image issues.
What we know
Research would suggest that body image issues start very young actually. In a study by Hayes & Tantleff-Dunn, it was reported that nearly a third of children age 5 to 6 chose an ideal body size that is thinner than their current perceived size. By age 10, over 80% of girls say they are afraid of being fat. My daughter is 6, and these statistics literally make my eyes well up with tears to know that over the next few years this diet obsessed culture will start to slowly erode her inner love for her body.
So the question is, what can we do as parents to avoid passing down body image issues
1. HEAL OURSELVES FIRST
Motherhood has a way of amplifying all of our struggles, that sense that you now have an audience watching your every move was certainly starting to weigh heavy on me as I got deeper into diet culture, and my children were getting older and more observant. Anna Lutz, a Anti-Diet Registered Dietitian in Raleigh NC, that specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition, suggests, “more important than feeding your children the ‘perfect’ way or saying the ‘right things’, the best gift you can give your children if you are struggling with your own food and body image issues, is to get help.”
For many this type of introspective work on themselves can feel indulgent, especially in this era of the “perfect” mom, who is expected to be all things: the amazing wife, nurturing caregiver, Pinterest-worthy homemaker, supportive friend/sister/daughter, respected colleague, and dedicated employee – to name a few. The very thought of adding one more thing to your plate, to focus on ending a struggle that our culture has normalized, may just not seem like a priority.
You may say to yourself, doesn’t everyone hate their body?
Regardless if you believe it or not, the answer is no, YOU don’t have to. But we all know the question you care most about: do you want your daughter to hate your body like you do? Do you really want to pass down these body image issues. If you are ready to change things, book a call on our calendar here, to understand how this legacy could be over.
2. TALK ABOUT FOOD IN A NEUTRAL WAY
Food is just food: it makes our bodies grow, it keeps us strong, it is enjoyable and delicious. All true for sure, but that is not how I was raised. Growing up in the 80-90’s I was a child of the ‘clean your plate’ era. But so many of my female role models always seemed to be trying not to finish their plates? There was a very distinct labeling of foods. Intellectually, I can see how this labeling puts greater currency on those “bad foods”, and subsequently just makes them more appealing, and then how making a child clean their whole plate takes them away from their own satiety cues. Still, knowing this wasn’t the best approach didn’t mean I knew how to do better.
I found myself feeding my children this way, but with this added expectation of perfection, in diversity, food quality and of course the SUPER FOODS. I remember when my first born was just starting solid foods and I was making all my baby food from scratch, anxious to ensure she was getting several varieties of superfoods every week. Two kids later, my ambitions had muted but I still found myself stuck. The more I continued my own journey down the intuitive eating path, the more that damn intuition told me “THIS IS WRONG!!” Enter, Division of Responsibility. Never heard of it? Neither had I.
The division of responsibility was developed by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician and family therapist, with over 50 years experience in research and helping families find joy in feeding their children. Division of responsibility encourages parents to decide the what, when and where of feeding and let the child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide. Thinking of it, how often does it actually work when you demand your child finish all said “healthy” food before he/she gets a treat. In our house it usually ends twenty minutes later, stalemate with a bunch of tears to boot.
Anna Lutz says, this is what makes her excited about her profession, the fact that she can teach parents “There is another way to do it. We don’t have to micromanage our children’s food, we don’t have to micromanage their weight. We can set up these structures like the division of responsibility, we can model healthy behaviors, and that our children’s bodies know what to do.” So healthy food, treat food, junk or fuel, we as parents need just to remove all the labels and provide variety.
3. HELP THEM STAY CLOSE TO THEIR OWN INNATE INTUITIVE EATING SKILLS:
Babies are born intuitive eaters. Think of a newborn. They are hungry, they cry, they eat until they are satisfied and they stop. As mothers, we just provide. Thinking back, I breastfed all three babies… with my first, I remember trying to lose the baby weight immediately and struggling to produce milk because I wasn’t eating enough. What an unbelievable memory now looking back. Here I had this perfect baby, intuitively trying to eat, struggling because her mother was fighting against her body and its magical powers of producing breast milk…..UGH…
A proud Oprah devotee, I’ve always loved the quote, “when you know better you do better”, and it is our hope here at Wellness Lately, we can help mothers and caregivers unlearn the rules given to us by diet culture, so we can reparent ourselves and allow our children to stay close to the wisdom they are given at birth. By following the division of responsibility, we simply provide a structure, the when, the what, the where and they take it from there.
4. TAKE THE EMPHASIS OFF BEAUTY
Last weekend. I posted some pictures on Facebook of my niece’s birthday party. There was a picture of my 6-year-old daughter smiling next to the pool. People have been commenting all weekend about how simply beautiful she is. And there is no doubt, she is. But as I read the comments, I had a quick impulse reaction to read them to her, thinking, “awwwwww how awesome will that make her feel, to know others think she is beautiful. And yes of course I do want her to feel amazing about herself, powerful, special and yes even beautiful.
But this work around intuitive eating and body image in my head stopped me. It has given me perspective, shown me some hard-to-see truths, and made me admit some harsh realities. For instance, the idea that her beauty is an extension of me: right or wrong? Do I get to take credit for her looks? Am I now seeking this acceptance on my looks through her? My own journey has helped me look back and understand some reasons for my preoccupation with my looks. I remembered back to where my own horrible body image probably began, remembering the emphasis placed on what I looked like, the comments on my beauty from all my family members when I was a little girl, how I would anticipate these comments, everywhere I went, but I also remember when I hit puberty how those comments dwindled and then stopped.
And this was long before social media.
“Talk not about how a body looks but what it is capable of doing,” Anna Lutz recommends. We spoke earlier about how modeling is the primary way in which children learn, and as mothers our focus on appearance and beauty will only teach our daughters to seek out the same affirmation from others about their looks. Renee Engeln, psychology researcher, and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Woman, suggests simple exercises like listing out a child’s individual body parts and literally detailing what amazing things they do. Think positive affirmations in a very detailed form.
Engels TEDx Talk encourages us to teach our girls to “try not to think of your body as a collection of parts for other people to look at, think of your body as unified and whole and your tool for exploring the world.” Each time we decide to change the conversation and compliment our daughter on something other than how they look, we teach our daughters that their “appearance is actually the least interesting thing about them.”
Our children are born loving their bodies, happy in the skin they are given. They know when they are hungry, they stop when they are full. Movement brings them joy and food is fun and pleasurable. Babies come into this world perfect and exactly as they should be. Unfortunately our culture has been hijacked by this obsession with thinness and beauty. For too long the solution has been a diet culture that slowly teaches our children to fix that which was not broken, to ignore all the wisdom that is inherently theirs.
With the best of intentions we hold our children close, we smell the tops of their heads, we love them. But when we know better, we do better and the time is now to fight back against diet culture and say now is the time for change.