“Ewww! Fat pants!”
“This dress is too puffy, dress makes me fat…”
“You’re only really cool if you’re skinny…”
These are the typical wails of 7-year-old Lindsay about clothes mom thought were cute.
This country’s obsession with being fat is spilling over to our kids, with dire consequences. Research has shown that kids as young as 5 worry about being fat, and are willing to change their body shape. “Skinny” is what many kids think they need to be to be A-OK.
The research is distressing. A recent study found that a significant number of girls age 5 wanted a thinner body, and more at ages 6-8, and that 1 in 4 children between ages 7-10 have dieted or restricted eating practices to lose weight.
Another study, published in the International Education Journal found that when 4-5 year olds were shown various images of people and asked if they were “nice” or “mean”, the ones they saw as “chubby” they said were mean and nasty while “cute and tiny” images were “nice, friendly, and kind.”
Add to that the fact that hospitalizations for kids under 12 with eating disorders have more than doubled the last decade, and cosmetic surgery among kids under 13 has risen 20% since 2008 – clearly there are reasons for parents to be concerned about pre-teens and tweens, and body image.
So What’s a Parent to Do?
Girls need role models on how to present themselves, not to be influenced mainly by TV idols, YouTubers, and the pop stars gracing the covers of magazines, that can leave them feeling they don’t measure up, and/or feeling they must change how they look. So moms, here are some tips from child therapists, nutritionists, other savvy moms on what you can do.
- Avoid: criticizing and critiquing your appearance, your weight, modeling a need to change your body, and using the words fat or disgusting about how you or she looks in clothes. Studies show kids with parents who criticize weight and appearance are more likely to develop eating disorders.
- Do identify and point out ways you appreciate your body and what she likes about hers.
- Avoid criticizing her interest or preoccupation in her image.
- Do show you are listening to her concerns. Share your own growing up body image insecurities and how you dealt with them. Tweens are adapting to a new reflection in the mirror daily as they are changing and coming into puberty and they need to define and express personal style and interests.
- Avoid restricting foods to focus on becoming thinner.
- Do stress health, nutrition, and fitness, facts on food variety and how they work in your body. Emphasize food as fuel. Discuss eating disorders and their consequences.
- Do stress looking attractive is finding clothes to work well for your shape, and purpose.
- Don’t show worry and stress over your child’s weight gains, or intimate abnormality or that there is something unacceptable about the way they are.
- Do discuss weight gain is normal before puberty.
- Stress how growth spurts need extra food, and eating too little can damage the body.
- Don’t compliment as a one size fits all generalizations, or always compliment beauty. Do compliment strength, accomplishments, and efforts.
- Do praise with specifics “you’re really good at….you really know a lot about…” especially of inner qualities. Don’t criticize physical ineptness.
- Do appreciate physical qualities with a generosity towards what their bodies can do.
- Do compare your child only to him or herself.
- Do make family resolutions to eat better together, exercise and do activities together to feel good as a family.
Finally, yours truly offers her means to counteract self-critical feelings to look just right in order to be happy. Take showers with your daughter and do the “tushie dance”– shaking, butting up, laughing over the beauty of parts that wiggles and jiggle in a celebration of how we are unique and perfect just the way we are.