I’ve wasted way too much time thinking about the size of my body. I’m determined that my kids won’t. But how?
My mom never talked poorly about her body. She didn’t point out strangers and label them as fat. Not once did she look at me and tell me I should eat less or that I was getting chubby. In terms of raising me to be okay with my body, she did everything right.
And yet I still have thoughts like, “Why can’t my stomach be flatter,” even though I just had a baby three months ago. These thoughts aren’t new. I remember showering in high school, back when I played soccer and basketball and ran track, and thinking, “This is it. This is the best my body will ever look.” I was 16! And wrong, by the way.
But these thoughts, they creep up when the new pants I bought online are tighter than expected, or when I reach for a treat and question if I really need it, or when I need a formal gown for a wedding and realize that in one brand I’m a four, and in the other I’m a 12; I’ll let you guess which number stays with me. I’m 5’10” and 146 pounds. My BMI is 20.9, so I’m neither under- or overweight, and yet still, the thoughts come.
As I look at my three children, a girl and two boys, I wonder how I can prevent this for them. How can I stop them from wasting even a moment of their time stressing about the numbers on a scale when I can’t seem to do that for myself? I want them to use their brains to do jobs they’re passionate about and create families they love, not dwell on the size of their waist. We’re so much better than that.
This year, I’m doing a sort of spring cleaning of my mind, trying to purge the useless inner monologue that says “you’re not ______ enough because you don’t look like ______” and intentionally replacing it with positive affirmations about things my body has done—such as running 5Ks, bringing three healthy children into the world, and regularly pushing 100 pounds of stroller around my neighborhood.
Here’s what I’m trying to do to help my kids focus on all the amazing things about their bodies so we can boot those negative thoughts before they hit. If you're struggling with the same concerns, these might work for you.
Ditch the Clean Plate Club
Teaching a child to trust his or her body starts at the dinner table. I ask questions: Are you hungry? Full? Did you try that food? Do you like it?
I don’t need or want my children to clean their plates, though they’re welcome to, and I try not to over-serve them.
I do ask that they try a bite of everything. But our guiding dinner principle is that mom and dad choose what and where; the kids get to say how much. My son can eat a breakfast fit for any adult, but some days he barely picks at dinner. That’s ok! I know he front-loads his calories during the early part of the day and winds down at night. He knows we’re ok with that; he also knows he’s not getting any treats or snacks to make up for dinners missed.
Get (or Stay) Active
When you’re outside with your kids, play with them, don’t just watch. Mention when you’re going on a run or heading to the gym. I tell my kids that it’s harder for moms to play on playgrounds—we don’t fit in all the slides—so we run, walk laps, or go to the gym in addition to playing epic rounds of hopscotch, but that their job is to play!
So don’t focus on those things being exercise; they don’t need to know you suggested walking the dog so you could hit your step goal. Instead, focus on how great those activities are to experience in general. Swimming is fun, so is dance class, hockey, running races, and playing tag in the backyard. There just happens to be a great benefit that those things also keep you healthy. Model the home you want them to remember as as adult.
Find a New Vocabulary
I think of my body in terms of weight. Yes, I also see it in terms of the skills and talents and experience I have, but I cannot deny my body's mass and presence in the world. It is a physical thing. It bears a weight. I consume calories and fat to keep it going.
But my kids are younger than five. While we engage in adult conversations, it’s also important to speak on their level at times. Calories and fat grams can also be “speedy energy” or “workers,” as one friend suggested.
So I try not to say that candy and sodas are bad for you and will make you fat, it’s that they’re not going to be much help to your body, which really needs energy today to play on the playground with your friends. I say “Let’s find a snack that will give you super speed before we hit the park.”
If you’ve ever seen a child raising hell in Target after being told a stern “no,” you likely understand that they’re passionate, if tiny, people who, like you and me, appreciate being looped in on the thought process behind the action. The more they understand the why behind making health-positive eating choices, the better chance you’ll have of getting broccoli (so much Vitamin C! That helps keep you from getting sick!) in them.
Realize the Role You Play—And What's Out of Your Hands
Like it or not, the words you’re saying today are going to become the voice in your child’s head. But that’s not as scary as it sounds.
When your child goes to middle school and hears friends (and frenemies) picking apart everything from the way they look and dress to how they act and what they say, your voice can be the one they fall back on.
So pay attention to what you are saying now. Do you call yourself, or your child, fat? Stupid? Lazy? What about smart? Strong? Clever?
When your child sees before and after pictures, ads for weight loss drugs, and social media influencers peddling this month’s chosen snake oil, engage them. How do those images make you feel? What do you think they’re trying to say? What do you think they want you to do?
Right now, my daughter still thinks women in short dresses simply forgot their pants, and she can’t read, so she doesn’t notice that the words “weight loss” and “happy” appear to go hand-in-hand, and put forward the idea that one is impossible without the other. But she will, and I want to train her eye to be discerning enough to sort the message from the noise.
Drop the F Word
I’m not trying to shield my child from every danger, or heartbreak, but I am trying to model what acceptable, kind human behavior should look like, and that includes a healthy dose of common sense and compassion.
So no, we don’t call people fat in our house. That includes commentary on people we see at the store, on television, or in books. They hear people say that, though. At the store and even in some books and cartoons, the “fat” shows up. “She’d be beautiful if she lost some weight.” “She’s fat, but she’s got a really pretty face.” The message conveyed is clear, and hurtful.
We teach kindness above all else around here, so we’re not talking about people’s bodies in terms of appearance or worth. For one, there are so many more important things to discuss. My mom routinely quoted a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart, “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”
For another thing, it’s cruel. Yes, some people have more body fat that others. That includes athletes, actually. There’s a difference between acknowledging (internally!) that information and labeling others as actually being fat. I’m not triggered; I’m kind.
Talk to Your Boys, Too
If you look at social media and magazines, you’d think girls are the only ones who struggle with weight, and that being overweight is the only struggle out there. But boys have body image issues, too. And kids get teased for being too skinny.
If that sounds obvious, it should be, but somehow we wouldn’t dream of telling Karen to lay off the burgers, but telling Kyle he’s skinny as a rail is seen as a compliment. Teach your kids that teasing about bodies isn’t ok, even if everyone is laughing. We need to raise our kids to be ok with and celebrate their bodies, definitely, but we also need them to learn to leave everyone else’s alone.
Be Kind to Yourself and Others
It’s hard to teach someone to love themselves when you’re struggling to do the same. The next time you have a negative thought about your body, list three reasons why your body is worth loving. Work to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, and you may just find that the positive ones start to come more naturally.
I haven’t figured out how to raise my kids perfectly. The more I think about this one, specific problem, the more I’m ignoring other critical ones. But today I’m trying, and I hope you and your people will try, too.