Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Parents Have Poor Body Image*

Over the years, concerned moms have asked me what they should do when a child has adopted body image issues from someone at home.  One mom, after a workshop, asked   “I think I have spent too much time worrying about my own weight in front of my ten year old daughter. I have heard her telling her friends she thinks she’s fat. Is it too late to fix this?” Another mom, a television host, told me on air that she had seen her five year old looking at her body in the mirror and asking “is my bum too big?” This mom astutely told me after the interview “when I saw her do that … I recognised that voice and that look on her face… that was me.”

Children get negative body messages in all kinds of places and some are more vulnerable to these messages than others.  The children who also get exposed to negative body talk in their families, have fewer safe places to grow naturally and be at home in their bodies.
Every day in every interaction, we are teaching our children something about how to think about themselves and how to appreciate and value their own features.   My own daughter has been told hundreds of times over the years: “you look just like your mom”.  For this reason,  more than any other, she has never heard me make a negative comment about my own appearance, my body shape or size. No matter how bad a day I may be having, I don't verbally degrade my worth in any way.  That doesn’t mean I’ve never had a self-critical thought… I just don’t express those things in front of a vulnerable child who is still shaping her own sense of identity and self-worth. 
If you believe you have modelled a poor attitude about weight or body shape, deal with it head on!  You might try telling your daughter:
You have heard me put myself down and worry a lot about my weight and I regret that. I have struggled with liking all of my body parts and accepting the body I have.  I don’t want you to have the same worries. Your body is just right for you!  I am going to commit to accepting that my body is also just right for me.
Begin to talk openly about your accomplishments, the things that give you pleasure and the parts of your body you appreciate. Openly admire other women of a variety of sizes: point out their skills and distinctive qualities as well as their beauty and confidence. When you exercise or make healthy food choices, you can talk about heart health, energy level and the pleasure you get in engaging in these things.  There is no need to talk about how wrong your body shape or size is and how much you desire to change it; if you need help healing your own body image issues – talk to your best friend or a counsellor. Modelling body comfort is just as important as talking about it. Put on your bathing suit and a pretty cover-up if it makes you feel better and take your daughter to the beach!

As Maya Angelou has said "when we know better; we do better."  Your daughter may not forget the early negative messages about weight but she will also remember that the parent who stopped worrying about weight all the time was more fun, had more energy and was happier.  That is a powerful lesson!

* parts of this article appeared in the Dove Self-Esteem Fund Ask Lisa column that ran in community newspapers in 2007 & 2008

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