When it comes to feeling good about their own bodies, young people nowadays can face an uphill battle. Our culture thrives upon comparisons in so many ways. Quite a few of its “ideals”, such as those that revolve around weight and body fat, aren’t even healthy or feasible for many people. Nonetheless, such images infuse our consciousness and make us wonder whether we look like we should. It encourages a spirit of competition in an arena where it does not belong. Each body is a unique sculpture. We should enjoy and appreciate our different shapes and sizes rather than constantly striving to be something other than what we are.
By the time they reach puberty, many kids have already learned to criticize their bodies. So many voices have become internalized. These may have stemmed from their parents’ concerns about weight and appearance, the bodily changes that they went through during puberty and/or the images that they absorbed from the media. Some kids of average size become convinced that they are overweight. Some who are overweight become convinced that they must be unattractive. Young people can begin acting upon such illusions in harmful ways. They may skip meals or take diet pills. Anorexia and bulimia can become serious issues.
In adulthood, these sorts of reactions can lead to breast surgery, botox and liposuction. None of this is necessary if young people learn to love what they see when they look in the mirror. You can help to nurture this in your own child. For starters, be aware of your own body image and your thoughts and feelings around it. Kids pick up on their parents’ ideas about what constitutes an attractive body. Comments about “good” and “bad” foods can become internalized. So can comments about weight. Help your child to understand that weight gain is normal during puberty. Try to avoid making negative statements referring to particular body sizes or shapes. An open mind towards different body types will go a long way towards helping young people to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Negative beliefs regarding food will have less of a chance to take hold if your child makes some decisions regarding what s/he eats. Just make sure that healthy options are always available and then allow for some freedom. Self-image is actually much more crucial than eating habits are. This is why some weight-conscious kids will actually overeat, for example. The logic of low self-esteem can go something like this: “Weight is unattractive. I’m not lovable. Therefore, it makes sense that I should binge.” Positive and affirming self-statements will do more good than the most stringent diets will.
Your child’s school environment can prove harder to influence. Many kids face harassment and teasing about their bodies. The “healthy norms” that are propagated by society – and supported by many schools – can do just as much harm, particularly if they lead to public weigh-ins and fat measurements. Do what you can to discourage such activities in your child’s own school. An atmosphere of tolerance always helps young people to cultivate a more healthy relationship with their own bodies.