Most of us have been breathing in food rules, beauty standards, and expectations for how we treat and mistreat ourselves and our bodies since we can remember (and probably before). There’s a lot of hard, conscious, and continual work that has to go into identifying, unpacking, and undoing these. This is challenging enough work to do for our own sake, but work that carries a sense of urgency when we have littles eyes watching and ears listening to how we talk about food, our bodies, other people’s bodies, and how all of this fits into out identity and self worth.
When you have little ones in your life – a child, younger sibling, niece or nephew, cousin, student, friend – you become a gardener for young, impressionable minds: planting seeds, watering, weeding, tending to new growth. As my daughter grows into her own sweet little self, I am more regularly met with the reality that every single thing I do and say has the potential to plant, water, or weed something in or out of her mind and, ultimately, the belief system she has about food, her body, identity, and worth. My own eating disorder was characterized by a robust list of unhealthy behaviors, thoughts, patterns, and habits, many of which I thought I was shielding from her.
A Wake-Up Call
At a point in my journey marked by some of my most challenging moments, I didn’t realize that my toddler was starting to absorb some of the beliefs and behaviors I had about and with food and my body. One day, she was “working out” (which consisted of her jumping around, trying to copy some of what she would see me do), and she nonchalantly announced, “I’m working out because I ate a lot of candy!” Now, I have never once talked to my daughter about working out to “burn off food” or any related unhealthy belief or thought pattern, but she had clearly started to catch on to my own behaviors and listen to comments I had made about my own body.
This moment was a poignant wake-up call for me. It helped me realize just how much of an impact my beliefs, words, and behaviors could have. Since that moment, I have worked (and continue to work) on healing my own relationship with food and my body so that I can help her form and maintain a healthy relationship with food, her body, and her identity.
Part of my journey to helping my daughter has been learning and practicing tangible strategies for promoting a healthy mindset, belief system, and behaviors around food and body image. Some of them are below.
Here are 8 actionable steps we can take to empower the littles in our lives to have a strong, positive, and healthy relationship with food and their bodies:
1. Avoid talking about food in terms of being “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy”
Instead, consider talking about the positive aspects about any given food when and if kids ask. For example, instead of making mention of some carbs being “empty,” or “high in calories,” we can say, “Carbohydrates give us energy to play!”
2. Avoid making negative comments about your own body
Kids learn by example, so even if you are talking positively or neutrally about their bodies or someone else’s bodies, hearing self-deprecating comments about our own could ultimately impact how they view theirs. Instead, consider focusing on what our bodies can do and the ways our bodies support us. If this feels too challenging or forced, start with body neutrality, and consider avoiding comments about your own body around kids at all.
3. Avoid using food as a reward or punishment
This could look a variety of ways: “You won’t be able to have a snack today because you didn’t clean your room right away when I asked” or “If you eat x,y, and z, then you can have ‘dessert.’” Research shows that, while these kinds of positive and negative reinforcements are commonly used, they can contribute to kids forming a complicated relationship with food. Kids start to internalize that food has to be “earned” or that it can be “taken away,” which is a mentality that diet culture is ever-so-eager to capitalize on.
4. Avoid forcing foods at mealtime
“Finish your plate or you won’t be able to eat anything else tonight” when a child says they are full at dinnertime. Now, there is verbiage and boundaries that can be considered here, but it can be confusing for a kid to have to finish their plate if they are genuinely full. This starts to teach kids to not trust their own hunger and fullness cues, that following “food rules” is more important than listening to their bodies.
5. Avoid commenting on the amount of food your child is eating
“Wow, you ate ALL of that? You must be growing!” is almost always well-meaning. Admittedly, I have said versions of this in the past, but have since realized that this could contribute to my daughter (or any other little one) thinking that there must be a “justifiable reason” for eating “a lot.” Instead, try to refrain from commenting on the amount of food a child eats; this alleviates pressure (and a lot of unnecessary power struggles).
6. Avoid using weight as a measure for health
In and of itself, weight is not an accurate measure for health, and focusing on it can cause an onslaught of body image issues. Instead, have conversations with your kids about the word “healthy” as they grow and are ready to have those – talking to your kids about how this word is defined differently and, in some cases, harmfully. They will certainly hear problematic messaging about weight from others, so it is important that they start hearing a counter to this problematic messaging early on from adults they know and trust.
7. Separate Movement from Appearance and Obligation
If we talk about exercising as something we “have to do” because we “need to lose weight” or “burn off calories,” this can unintentionally set our kids up to have a problematic belief about and relationship with food, their bodies, and movement. Movement should be done out of joy and for joy, not as a means to punish our bodies. Instead, model engaging in movement that you authentically enjoy and carefully consider the words you use when talking about movement that you or the children in your life engage in. Focusing on benefits of movement that do not have to do with appearance can be a great place to start, too: movement can be fun, make us feel energized, help us sleep well!
8. Destigmatize Weight and Celebrate All Body Sizes
Teach your littles to accept, appreciate, and celebrate their bodies and to accept and celebrate the bodies of others, even if they are different than their own. Helping our children shift their focus on what our bodies can do, rather than on what they look like, can help children develop an authentic appreciation for their own and others’ bodies. Dr. Colleen Reichmann recently posted a video of a song that she sings with her own children that encourages kids to celebrate all bodies, no matter the size! It is the absolute sweetest and is certainly worth watching. I need to learn the song myself. 🙂
Small Adjustments when Talking to Kids About Food and Bodies to Empower Perspective Shifts
Interacting with younger people about their views on food and their bodies can reveal deeply ingrained beliefs we may have that we may or may not be aware are there. As we make small adjustments to the way we see and speak about our own bodies and food, we not only facilitate healing for ourselves, but also create an opportunity for younger generations to develop a more empowered perception of their own bodies. Those seemingly minor changes can lead to significant shifts in perspective, which can lead to a complete transformation of our internalized beliefs about food, bodies, identity, and self worth.
Recently, I have seen and heard some of the slight changes in my daughter’s attitude toward and words about food and her own body since changing how I talk about my own. A few days ago, she was pulling open a heavy door that she insisted on opening on her own. When she seemed to be struggling, I reached for the handle to help, to which she said, “No no, mom! I can do it. My body is strong.” Yes. Yes it is, my little one.
By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC
All images via Unsplash
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