Coinciding with Body Image & Eating Disorder Awareness Week (BIEDAW) is the Butterfly Foundations “Love Your Body Week” which runs from 3rd-9th September.
With that in mind, there is no better time than now to start to think about the ways in which you can improve body image and prevent eating disorders in your child or teen. Research has shown that having a poor body image can be one of the significant risk factors to a person developing an eating disorder and in Mission Australia’s 2015 National Youth Survey; at least 1 in 4 young Australians have identified body image as being one of their top three concerns for the sixth year in a row.
Research has also shown that having a negative body image is correlated with other mental health issues in youth such as anxiety and depression, making this a topic that is clearly worth paying attention to.
So what can you do to take a proactive approach and help your child to cultivate a healthy body image and self-esteem?
1. Modelling modelling modelling
No, I don’t mean the strutting down the catwalk kind of modelling. I mean role modelling the thoughts, behaviours and attitudes that you would want your child to adopt.
You know the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? This is what we’re talking about here. It is not enough to tell your child or teen to love them selves and to feel good about themselves, if you are not modelling the same behaviour.
Think about it. These little people that you bring in to the world look to you as their main frame of reference from day one. Of course as they get older, they will encounter many more outside influences and that is not always an easy thing to navigate. However you are their very first frame of reference as to who they are and what their place is in this world. So they are going to be watching you – consciously as well as unconsciously – to see how you find your place in this world. You will be their first frame of reference, so make sure that you’re a good one.
How do you do this?
Avoid talking about being on diets or dissatisfaction about your appearance.
Avoid making comments (be they negative or positive) or about other people’s bodies, appearances or diets.
Focus on the positive things about your body that you like and express gratitude for what your body does for you.
Focus on the health benefits of your food choices rather than simply whether or not the food you choose will lead to weight (or muscle for that matter) gain or loss.
2. Engage with your child or teen about the media’s portrayal and idealisation of particular types of bodies
The media and societal obsession with the ‘ideal’ body is everywhere; this has of course been the case for a long time. However, with the way that social media now permeates our everyday lives, there are more and more opportunities than ever for a young and impressionable person to internalise these messages and feel that there might be something wrong with their body if they don’t look a certain way.
So what does this mean in practical terms?
This might be something as simple as pointing out body positive role models in the mainstream media and discussing the qualities that you admire in them which have nothing to do with appearance.
Ask your child or teen about who they admire in the media and in a non-judgemental way, explore what they like about that person.
Ask your child about what they think is important to talk about in mainstream media. Help them to engage in a fruitful conversation about topics that might actually be of importance.
Talk to your child about becoming a critical consumer; about knowing how to spot when advertisements are preying on our insecurities to try to get us to feel a certain way so as we buy in to a particular product or mind-set.
Have a conversation about the unrealistic images used sometimes in advertising, in regards to photo shopping and lighting tricks that are used.
3. Connect with your child or teen on a level which makes them know that they are really appreciated for who they are.
When it comes to families, most of us (if we are lucky) probably assume that we are loved by our parents without it necessarily being explicitly said. There is a difference however between knowing that you are loved because that’s what is supposed to happen, versus really knowing and feeling that you are loved and appreciated for the uniqueness that is you. That you are seen, heard and valued for who you are really are.
So tell your child or teen than you love them and tell them exactly why. It could be that they are kind, thoughtful or a good friend or that you admire them because they are smart, creative or dedicated to the things that they love.
Be emotionally expressive with them and encourage them to do the same. This step lends a hand from step number one, which is modelling the behaviour that you want to see in them. Express your feelings and let them know that their feelings matter to you and that you are here for them also.
Being a teenager in particular can sometimes be a particularly isolating and uncertain experience. So just knowing that you are there for them, even if they don’t always take you up on that offer, will let them know that they have a safe place to fall with you.
Follow these three steps and you will be well on your way to helping your child or teen develop a healthy body image.
Would you add anything to these steps? I’d love to hear from you, feel free to leave comments below.
Additionally, if you are based in Melbourne, Australia, in the New Year I will be offering 4 and 6 week courses run through schools aimed at eating disorder and obesity prevention in young people. These courses will be of the highest standard, using the teachings of the Australian Centre for Eating Disorders (ACFED). If you think that this is something that your school or community might be interested in, please get in touch here.