Practice positivity: Navigating body image with your child

a mother holding her child to denote body positivity
(Image: Adobe Stock)

Children receive thousands of messages every day about ‘how the world works’ and the role of kids and adolescents in it. Sometimes they learn things explicitly, but they also receive cues from mass and social media, family and peers.

Body image is no exception. In young people, negative messages about bodies and appearances can contribute to eating disorders, depression, and other impacts on mental health.

Body positivity can help counter these messages. For more information, we spoke with Melissa Stepien, a child and adolescent psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at Child Health Associates practice in the Boston Children’s Primary Care Alliance network.

What is body positivity?

Body positivity is the idea that all bodies deserve acceptance, respect, and care, regardless of how society views the ideal body. Nobody feels beautiful every second of the day, but respecting your body is possible.

“Body positivity is not just about weight or athleticism,” Stepien explains. “It’s also about recognizing and countering judgments based on physical disability, age, gender, sexuality, and race.”

Importantly, body positivity doesn’t require a certain product or a specific diet. “It’s about becoming the authority of your own body and eating and exercising intuitively,” Stepien says. “There’s a difference between making lifestyle changes because you feel empowered and trying to change your body so you can accept it.”

Question mass media

Mass media can influence how we think and feel about food and nutrition, exercise, and other things associated with appearance.

“Media often promotes unrealistic and idealized body types,” Stepien says. “While you’re watching television or movies as a family, ask questions at the end. Were the body depictions realistic? Who created the media, and how are they profiting from its messages?”

Promote healthy social media use

Social media is another way children learn about body image. In fact, studies show a connection between time spent on social media and body image concerns. Because negative messages can be subtle, it’s important to help children become critical social media users.

Know the technology your children are using. What social media platforms do they use? What influencers or content creators do they follow?

Create a family media plan, establish media-free zones in the house, or create a community charging station where everyone plugs in their devices for the evening.

Use body positive language

Share what you like about your own body and avoid criticizing yourself in front of them. Try to praise internal characteristics, such as being a hard worker or a good listener. And talk about chosen aspects of appearance like clothing, jewelry, or nail polish.

When your child asks to take a photo of you or with you, say yes when you can. Use body positive language when viewing the photo: “We look so happy!” or “You have a great smile!”

Model healthy choices

If you’re making changes to your diet or exercise routine, emphasize what you like about the habit instead of a desire to lose weight. Share how exercise helps you feel stronger, sleep better, improve your mood, or be more flexible. Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, discuss which foods provide your body with fuel and nutrition and which foods are better in moderation.

Respond to negativity

If your child shares something negative on social media or says it aloud, ask your child why they feel that way and listen closely before responding.

Talk to your pediatrician

If body image concerns affect your child’s mental or behavioral health, talk to your pediatrician. Treatment may be available through the practice, or they may recommend a professional who can offer strategies help your child improve their body image.

Many Boston Children’s Primary Care Alliance practices offer support for mental and behavioral health. Find a practice near you.

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