By Expert Contributor Alison Tedford
‘”Don’t go down the alley!” we yell at the TV screen while we watch the protagonist about to encounter certain disaster in a horror movie. As parents, we instinctively want to protect our kids from danger. We teach them to look both ways before they cross the street, not to stick metal things in the electrical outlet and not to give personal information to strangers. As a parent encountering body image issues, “Don’t go down the alley!” becomes “That scale doesn’t define you!”
These are some ideas to keep in mind as you teach your kids about healthy body image and self-love.
1. Eyes on your own plate and defending your sandwich. There was a humorous and viral Subway advertisement where the actors exclaimed “Back off, get your own sandwich!” We need to teach our kids to defend their sandwiches by reinforcing the message “eyes on your own plate” (a message imparted to me by a support group I belong to called Eating the Food). This means what and how much someone chooses to eat is their business alone. Teaching kids not to comment on other people’s food choices reminds them how inappropriate it is when someone comments on their food choices. “Are you really going to eat that?” can be responded to with, “Yes, back off, get your own sandwich!”
2. Encourage critical thinking about media messages. Media messaging can be like a game of telephone. Kids are little sponges and it’s good to check in about what they are absorbing. I interacted with some very special girls and we talked about a song on the radio they felt encouraged body confidence. I asked them to describe what message meant the most to them. “Boys will still love you even if you have a big bum”. This was a great time to redirect, “Boys will love you if you have a big bum, but the person you need to love you the most is you. All bodies are good bodies. Someone doesn’t have to like your body for it to be a good body.”
3. Set an example. Check in with yourself about how you describe your body in front of your kids and how you support people who are critical of their bodies. It is really important not to culturally normalize body shaming and self-deprecation. That being said, acknowledging insecurities is perfectly acceptable. It’s important to be real with your kids so they know how to handle those feelings themselves and communicate them to others. Recognize and vocalize where it’s coming from to give context. “Mommy’s feeling insecure today about her body because she’s stressed out, or tired.” Use a feelings chart to help replace the word fat, because it isn’t a feeling. It’s something else, it’s like a weird bird, so grab your field guide and help them to identify it.
4. Load their backpack with what they need. In the morning, I stuff all the things my son is going to need for the day to be successful into his backpack. Planner, lunch kit, homework, gym strip. The compliments you give load their emotional backpack. “You’re pretty” is important information for them to have when someone tells them that they are not. Borrow shamelessly from ‘The Help’ and give them just a bit more ammunition. You’re pretty but also “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” (With credit and all the gratitude in the world to Kathryn Stockett). You are pretty and so much more.
5. Encourage sports. Sports reinforce the message that your body is an instrument, not an artifact. It’s not an ornament. Athletic achievement places the emphasis on what the body can do and not just what it looks like. The safety equipment for hockey and soccer doesn’t just protect them from physical injuries; it also insulates them from people who objectify their bodies. Thanks to sports, they can say things like “Thunder thighs? You should see how many goals these legs can kick! Flabby arms? You should see my slap shot!”
6. Boys need help too. Eating disorders don’t discriminate and they impact boys too. The lack of conversation on the subject of boys and their body image makes it easier for them to suffer in silence. That’s a cultural shift that needs attention. I was relieved when I gave birth to a boy because I felt ill prepared to model for a little girl how to practice positive body image and self- love. The reality is that I am just as responsible to teach my son to love his body and how to be supportive and empathetic towards people in his life who are struggling to love themselves.
As parents, we can’t protect our kids from everything, but we can help them by giving them the tools they need to protect themselves. We can tell them not to go down the alley, we can tell them what danger looks like, and when they look like they might be going to a dark place, we can remind them of the light shining brightly inside them.
Alison Tedford is a single mom of one rambunctious boy, from Abbotsford, BC, Canada. She is a data analyst, a pole dance instructor, an eating disorder support group facilitator and fitness enthusiast. She likes naps and long walks on the patio with a skinny vanilla latte.
Follow Alison -