Feature photo credit: Lisa Wixed
As parents, we’ve often heard how our approach to health, food, and our body image can indirectly impact our children’s views of themselves. Children emulate what they see and hear around them and strive to be like the adults they admire. So how can we, as parents, give our children a healthy body image? I’ll address this further in a moment, but first, let’s take a peek into what can happen when we don’t consider how our approach to diet and exercise affects our kids.
My Story: When I was a child, I watched my parents struggle with managing their weight, going on fad diets like the Grapefruit diet. I distinctly recall the commercials on T.V. advertising diet pills (like Dexatrim), purporting that taking a pill would transform your physique into one like the beautiful and perfectly-toned model on the screen. Surrounded by media encouraging me to be as thin as possible, along with my parents expressing their constant dissatisfaction with their bodies, helped me develop a negative body image early in life. By the time I reached third grade, I refused to wear my Kmart Wrangler jeans because I thought they made me look fat, though I was of normal weight for my age at that time.
Anorexia Awakens: In my first two years of high school, I struggled further with my feelings of body inadequacy. In health class we learned about the dangers of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which was presented to be a deterrent to succumbing to these diseases. Unfortunately, I viewed this new knowledge as an opportunity to change my body into the image I wanted. I began studying the habits of famous anorexics like Karen Carpenter (March 2, 1950 – February 4, 1983) to learn how I could lose weight quickly. I cut out a picture of a swim suit model whom I felt had my ideal body and taped it on the wall in my bedroom. Every morning I woke up at 5 a.m., put on my workout clothes, looked at the swim suit model’s picture and repeated affirmations to myself that I would look like her, would eat less today, and exercise longer. Then I rode my stationary bike for 30 minutes and did an additional 15-30 minutes of resistance training that I’d learned from Jane Fonda videos. I ate a standard breakfast of dry toast with small glass of orange juice and then was off to school. Lunch usually consisted of “ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter and raisins), carrot sticks, and a boiled egg. After school I worked out for two hours – either with my soccer team during the season, or running the track on my own. At dinnertime I ate the smallest amount I could without my mother noticing. Afterwards, I wrote down all the food I’d consumed for the day in my food journal and tallied up the calories, with a vow to do better (eat less) the next day.
Menses Cessation: Three months into my new diet and exercise routine, I’d lost almost 15 pounds and my 5’2” frame now weighed a total of 92 pounds. My goal was 90 pounds, but no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t able to lose the last 2 pounds. What I did lose, however, was my period. One day I noticed that I had not had my period in almost two months, and since I was 14 and not sexually active, I knew something was wrong. Instead of being concerned about this sudden development, though, I was happy. I felt it was a sign of progress. I was finally losing enough body fat and I didn’t like dealing with my messy menstrual cycle anyway so it was a win-win situation in my teenage mind.
Regaining My Weight & Health: I maintained my low body weight, intense workout routine, and lack of menses for almost two years, until I starting dating a boy who told me he thought I looked too thin and said he preferred “a girl with more meat on her bones.” I felt extremely relieved, as if someone had finally given me permission to feed my starving body. Luckily in my case, seeking approval from my boyfriend was enough to prompt me to begin gaining weight again, but this is NOT the reality for the majority of people suffering from eating disorders. Per Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders:
“A few people who refuse professional treatment do eventually recover, but it may take several years, even decades. Most make little or no progress without help. Up to 20 percent do not survive.”
Let me be clear: Eating disorders are classified as mental illnesses that require treatment from trained professionals. Severe physical harm, including long-term organ damage and death can result from eating disorders. If you know someone suffering from anorexia and/or bulimia, encourage them to seek help immediately. If they are a minor under the age of 18, notify their parents and/or a responsible adult such as a school counselor or teacher. Click here for the National Eating Disorders Association hotline and further information about these diseases.
I was one of the fortunate children who managed to recover without professional treatment, but only time will tell if my years of starving myself induced long-term damage, such as permanent bone loss (osteopenia). If only my parents had the knowledge then about how their body images directly impacted mine then my formative years may have been quite different. Here are 8 ways to positively influence your child’s body image:
- Stock your kitchen with healthy food choices and eat them, preferably with your child!
- If you choose to “diet,” let your child know that it is to improve your health and not just to lose weight so you can fit into that polka dot bikini this summer.
- Include your kids in fun physical activities like baseball, basketball, yoga, and playing chase.
- Adopt a regular exercise routine that fits your needs.
- Abstain from negative talk about body appearance – both yours and other people’s.
- Refrain from verbally comparing your body to others, especially when your child is listening (& we know they are always listening).
- Do not discuss your weight. Talk instead about how strong your body is and how healthy you feel.
- Finally, and most importantly, learn to fall in love with the body you have. After all, it’s the only one you’ve got so you may as well embrace it!