How to Help Kids Accept Their Bodies and Celebrate Body Diversity
Let’s talk to kids about puberty. I don’t just mean the birds and the bees, though that’s super important.
Let’s talk to them about the diversity of bodies.
A whole lot.
Why? Because that kind of talking will counteract the millions (yes, millions) of images that your child or teen will see in videos, advertising, and on social media. The majority of these images highlight perfected, filtered, and idealized bodies.
Reminding kids of those filters encourages good media literacy. Yes, models and celebrities have pores and cellulite like the rest of us, but they also have their own makeup artists, personal trainers, and photo editors who airbrush the heck out of their images.
Beyond this, talk to preteens about how natural it is to have body and weight changes. Preteens get round. Yes, that soft, squishy tummy is normal. Adolescence is the time of life, second only to infancy, when the body and brain grow exponentially. In the preteen years, the body needs to obtain extra fat weight, and that increase in body proportions provides reserves that help fuel important teenage growth.
If preteens are allowed to round out naturally, without interference from well-meaning parents or health care providers, most of that roundness encourages healthy growth and maturation. Interfering with your child’s weight by putting them on a diet or by encouraging unnatural “six-pack” abs may stunt the development of their brain and height, never mind their self-esteem.
In fact, research shows that the number-one way to make sure that your children grow up to be adults who struggle with their weight is to put them on diets during childhood. Dieting is not a behavior that encourages growth and well-being; it promotes conservation of energy, slowed metabolic rate, and fat storage.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Fat storage, I mean.)
The more we demonize body fat for young children, the more we feed into a culture that claims, in order to be acceptable and lovable, we need to look a certain way or have a particular body type. There are so many reasons why we have the body types that we do: genetics, hormones, even the way our pregnant moms ate. (For example, epigenetic studies of European famine indicate that starving moms produce heavier humans.) Making children or teens feel bad about and overly responsible for their body type is a recipe for a life-long struggle with food and fitness, one that leads to control instead of care for the body.
If you notice your kids dieting because they are dancers or athletes encouraged to “reduce,” do something about that. Reach out to their dance instructor or coach and remind them that performance is about hard work and determination and not body type. Yes, maybe body type matters to an Olympic athlete where a fraction of a second makes a difference in a race and body proportions matter. (Notice that swimmers and runners tend to have different and somewhat homogenous body types at the elite level.)
However, encouraging a team of young people to lose weight to get faster will likely have the opposite effect for most kids as they deplete their caloric fuel. Those who improve their times when they diet may harm their ability to be sustainable athletes and movers for many decades to come. Running on fumes almost always leads to injuries, illness, and burnout. Don’t let coaches prioritize winning if it’s at the expense of your child’s self-esteem and health.
A popular aesthetic among teen models is prepubescent and razor-thin. This prepubescent look is not most bodies. Who says that all bellies can’t be beautiful in cropped tops? Our culture does. Even kids who conform to this thinner ideal body type at age 13 might not at age 17. Please talk about this possibility at home while your kids are taking in all those images. Challenge them to find pictures on Instagram of humans with diverse body sizes, asymmetrical features, and disabilities. Encourage them to find role models who care for their whole selves and have meaningful lives, not just stereotypically attractive bodies.
My kids got tired of my body-positive, bodies-come-in-different-sizes rants, but I now hear them repeating similar words to 15-year-old friends who share negative body thoughts. They can tell their friends they love them and that they are so much more than just their bodies. They heard it so much themselves growing up, and they believe it.
Sometimes it’s essential to be a broken record with our children when our culture is so broken and wrapped up in body ideals based on making most people feel shame so that they will buy the next diet book, pill, or fitness product. Lately, in the United States, we’ve been talking about insidious racism that exists on so many levels. People in larger bodies also experience oppression every single day in this culture. Let’s not be blind to this, either. Let’s work to change it for future generations.
In summary, how do we help our kids accept their bodies and selves and respect those of others? Normalize roundness as part of growth. Encourage health and well-being for the whole person and not for producing a particular body type. Do not tolerate fat-shaming in any form, and don’t encourage it by overtly or subtly favoring a specific body type in your children. Remind them that people come in all different shapes, colors, and sizes and that bodies change a lot over the lifespan. If your preteen doesn’t freak out about the naturally soft belly that is a hallmark of early puberty, then she/he/they will be less likely to freak out someday about natural middle-aged body shifting, or their child-bearing weight changes, or their body softening in a pandemic.
Sprinkle body acceptance messages early and often with your kids. A healthy adult relationship with food, body, and self depends on it.
If you appreciated this article and want more support, you might enjoy my book Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self.