“Wow, she lost so much weight! She looks amazing. Good for her. I wonder how she did it!” I have a distinct memory from childhood where a family member made this comment about someone they ran into at a store. They made the comment while on the phone with a friend afterward, and the conversation about this person who had lost weight carried on for several minutes. At the time, I don’t remember thinking much of it in terms of what it meant for me personally, but I can’t help but look back and think that comments and conversations like these, even when they had nothing to do with me, actually ended up having a lasting impact on me and my own body image.

In the transition from the young person to the person who young people see, hear, and watch, I think of how much of what I say could land on the ears and take root in the heart of the little ones around me. Becoming a mom and also being someone who has had a long history of a challenging relationship with food and exercise has given me perspective that allows me to gaze into two worlds, seemingly at the same time.

Body Image Building Blocks: Absorbing the World Around Us

For those of us who have had body image issues and eating disorders throughout our lives, taking time to think about where these originated, I realize that much of my initial awareness that bodies are something to be assessed, tweaked, and “regulated” came from the little world I was surrounded by as a small child – parents, relatives, teachers, doctors, friends. It was through face-to-face interactions, listening to people talk to each other, and absorbing what they said to me that I first learned that my body was not just my body, but that it was something other people may have an opinion about. 

Now, it’s important that I note this is not written with the intent to point fingers at all who have shaped us into who we are today as young or older adults. Nor is it written to make ourselves feel bad for the ways that we may have unknowingly made comments that leave impressions on the way the kids in our own lives are forming their own body image. Rather, it can be healing to recognize where some of our thoughts and beliefs first came from, notice how they may still show up in our minds, in our comments about our own bodies, and be intentional about flipping the script for our children and other young ones in our lives.

What We Say vs. What They Hear: 6 Adults Comments about Food and Bodies and What Kids Actually Hear

What We SayWhat They Hear
1. *Eats an “extra” cookie* “I’m going to have to go for a long run later!”I have to earn the food I eat, and if I don’t, I should feel bad about it. 
2. “Ew. I hate this dress. I look fat.”I can only wear certain types of clothes if I am thin. My mom will not think I look pretty in a dress unless I look thin in it.
3. “I am not  weighing myself after we get back from vacation. I can tell I have gained so much weight. I don’t want to see the number on the scale.”Eating foods I love will harm my body. I should be scared of gaining weight; therefore, I should avoid indulging in foods I love and should feel guilty when I do. 

What We Say vs. What They Hear, continued

4. *Shows a picture from wedding day* “I looked the best that I’ve looked in my life! I weighed [insert number] pounds on my wedding day.”In order to look great on my own wedding day, I need to be small. And one of the most notable and memorable things about my wedding day is my size. 
5. “When I was your age, I was as skinny as you! Eat everything you want while you can. Your metabolism just isn’t the same when you get older.”I can only enjoy “fun” foods now; when I get older, I cannot enjoy these foods anymore because they will cause my body to change, and change is bad. 
6. “He definitely let himself go. I mean, look at how much weight he gained! No wonder he has all these health issues. If he really cares about himself and his family, he needs to lose weight”The size of my body is an indication of how much I care about myself and others. The size of my body is something other people have the right to judge. If I gain a certain amount of weight, people will assume I am a selfish, careless person.

Breaking Generational Patterns: Nurturing a More Positive Body Image in the Next Generation

I recently read a quote that said something to the effect of, “Just because our parents [insert any adults who helped shape us] did not break all generational patterns did not mean they didn’t break some,” and in its simplicity, I find this to be profound. My growing awareness for the impact we can have on the children in our lives’ views of and relationships with their bodies puts me in a position to try my hardest to ensure that I am speaking life into my daughter and others as they grow, learn, unlearn, and relearn. It’s a reminder that all of us – the older adults in our own lives who we looked up to, ourselves, and the kids who now look up to us – are still growing, learning, unlearning, and relearning. And in continually healing our own relationships with food and our bodies, we may help heal theirs, too.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

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