As dietitians, we talk with people every day about what they eat and how they live their lives. Ultimately, we hear how they feel about themselves and their bodies. In our society, we are inundated with messages about food and an idealized body type. Children as young as three years old develop body image uncertainty due to conflicting messages in our media and cultural language. Some children, as young as 6 years old, begin to “diet” as they innately realize that our culture values a thin ideal. Elementary-age children may bully heavier kids, physically, and more often through exclusion and other power relationships.
What can we do as adults? How do we shift this culture, which breeds body image problems in our children? Here are three ways you can shift the conversation:
- Do not engage in fat talk. Refrain from comments such as “I’m so fat”, “My legs are huge”, “I’ve just got to lose this weight”. Shift the conversation to, “I need to move my body today”, “I’m going to eat the foods my body needs to be strong”, and “I’m going to get the sleep I need so that I’m feeling great tomorrow”.
- Health is not defined by weight. Talk with friends, family and children about what it really means to be healthy. There is ample research to show that body weight does not determine health. Health is determined by habits. Eating well, exercising, managing stress and getting adequate sleep is a more valid way to identify health. This concept stems from research that shows metabolic dysfunction in persons not engaging in healthy living habits yet who had commonly accepted, appropriate weights.
- Work to develop positive self-esteem and coping habits. In doing so, you are becoming a role model for the children in your community. This is particularly important for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles; as you know, children are always watching and learning. Children intuitively develop their own self-esteem and body image by watching and listening to you.
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is February 26-March 3. Join the conversation to learn more about what you can do to change the conversation.