We’ve bought into every skin brightening cream that tells us “white is the new black”. Kept up with every gravity-defying Kardashian kurve. Believed in the lie that who we are is defined by how we look. And worryingly, we’re not the only ones susceptible to this.
A 2015 study by nonprofit organisation Common Sense Media has shown that children as young as 5 have begun to express a dislike for their bodies, and the desire to be thinner. By age 7, 1 in 4 kids have attempted some form of dieting. The rate of children affected by eating disorders stands at an all-time high.
Disturbing as these results might be, they facilitate a greater discussion: how can we as parents, help break our children out of this toxic cycle? Here are some key things we can do to raise body-positive kids in today’s tough times:
Start young – and start small
As the old Malay adage goes- sikit-sikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit. From a young age, help your children to love their bodies by affirming them with physical affection and verbal praise. Encourage your kids to engage in physical play too, so that they can learn about how their bodies function and hone their growing motor skills.
Engage in open dialogue with them about their developing bodies, and address their concerns in an honest, supportive manner. As your kids mature, make sure to teach them how to understand, respect and care for their bodies.
Watch your words
Realise that you are a huge influence on your child’s body image – and a powerful source of positive (or negative) messaging. Don’t undermine your own appearance by speaking critically about your body, or by suggesting that you can’t do something due to a perceived physical inadequacy. Kids learn by imitating the people they most admire – their mums and dads. If their parents speak unkindly about their own bodies, the kids will follow suit.
Be mindful too, of the words you use to describe your child’s appearance. Avoid comparing your child to another child (“You’re so small next to Adam in this picture!“). Instead, celebrate your child’s unique characteristics and traits (“I love your crinkly-eyed smile!“).
Kids can also develop a complex relationship with food as they become more aware of how they look. Be careful not to make hurtful comments about your child’s appetite. You wouldn’t want to create an unhealthy dynamic by using food, as a tool to reward or punish your child, for good or bad behaviour.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
Remind your kids that a healthy body is more important than one that is thin, tall or has an eight-pack! Whilst it’s important to watch what we eat, our focus shouldn’t be on losing weight, but on living in a healthier way instead.
One way to do this is by letting your kids help you with healthy food prep or grocery runs, so they can learn about good eating habits. Model positive exercise behaviour as well, and make sure to keep fit as a family with sports and outdoor play, to foster a love for physical activity in your kids.
Teach your kids that “every body is a good body”. The world is made up of a beautiful collection of people of every shape, size and ethnicity – and it’s our responsibility to help our children respect this.
Start by educating your kids not to be unkind if they see a person who looks “different.” Aim instead to direct positive attention to diverse forms of beauty. Keep the focus on a person’s more important qualities, like bravery or kindness, rather than their physical appearance.
Local model, Sonya Danita Charles with skin condition vitiligo
Be mindful of the media your kids consume
From the Hulk’s bulging muscles, to Barbie’s ridiculous proportions, the media can often provide kids with an unrealistic representation of the human body. Parents can address this by calling out body or gender biases in the media e.g. movies that glamourise eating disorders or objectify women. You could also remove or reduce influences that might have a negative impact on body image, such as magazines or TV programmes that advocate extreme makeovers.
Expose your kids to inspiring body-positive advocates instead. Some great examples are motivational speaker Nick Vujicic, who was born with no limbs, and local model, Sonya Danita Charles, with skin condition vitiligo, who are shaking up stereotypes. Introduce books and toys with positive body image messages, all of which could challenge your child’s perception of beauty.