Health & Science

What to say when kids talk about their bodies

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Body image issues can start showing up in kids as young as three years old. While that may sound young, the fact is that if your child is old enough to notice what other people’s bodies look like and how they differ from their own, they are old enough to start forming opinions about those bodies—both positive and negative ones.

The overwhelming message from the media, even sometimes from media directed at very young audiences, is that thinner is better. Social media in particular can be a harmful space for children when it comes to issues of self-esteem and body image. This is especially troubling in light of recent reports about kids’ screen time skyrocketing, and the fact that this increase in online time has been linked to increased anxiety and mental distress.

According to Jacqueline Harding, advisor and child development expert with the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), body image problems can arise in very young kids due to, “images on TV, images in storybooks and animations and the general chat by adults about their bodies, dieting, cosmetic surgery, etc.”

Whether we like it or not, children are absorbing harmful messages about their bodies from an early age, which can lead to bigger problems like low self-esteem, depression, and disordered eating. It’s important to start talking about body image with your kids as soon as possible to get ahead of those messages and instill some uplifting ones of your own. 

These 5 simple scripts can help you start to talk through these issues with your kids and model a healthy body image for them:

“You can’t tell whether someone is healthy just by looking at them.” 

If you or your child automatically associate “fat” with “unhealthy,” that’s society’s harmful messaging at work. The fact is, larger bodies aren’t necessarily unhealthy ones, just like thinner bodies aren’t necessarily healthier. Be mindful of how you use words like “fat,” and avoid giving it any negative context. Fat isn’t bad!

“All bodies are different—and that’s good!” 

The world is a better, more interesting place because we’re all so different. It’s totally normal to feel envious of others sometimes, so you can validate those feelings—then shift the focus to the amazing things that make them unique! 

“When you feel unhappy with your body, think about all of the incredible things it does for you every day.” 

Try to constantly shift focus away from what bodies look like to what they can do. Teach yourself and your kids gratitude for the ways that our bodies nurture and protect us each day. 

“Not everything you see online or on TV is real.” 

It’s not fair to compare real bodies to the ones we see in the media which are often digitally altered. It’s worth taking the time to curate your own social media feed by unfollowing accounts that promote unattainable beauty standards and follow ones that show real bodies. Your kids see you scrolling, so make sure what they’re picking up from you is positive! 

“Our bodies change a lot over our lifetime, and they’re supposed to! What’s more important than how you look is how you treat other people.”  

You may look different from one year to the next, but what people will remember the most about you is how you treated them. Physical appearance is just not that important in the greater scheme of things, and that’s a great reminder to reinforce with yourself and your children. 

Some other helpful tips to promote healthy body image in your family include:

  • No diet talk!  Talking about certain foods as “junk,” saying you “shouldn’t” eat something because it has too many calories, or claiming you can only enjoy a certain food because you “earned it” in some way can instill negative feelings about food and eating in young kids. The best approach is to keep food around that you don’t mind your kids eating, and talk about what good foods can do for your body.
  • Cultivate positive body inspiration.  Look for books and media to add to your kid’s collection that feature real-looking bodies, bodies with disabilities, and characters that break out of gender stereotypes. Surround your children with positive role models and uplifting messages about bodies being different and strong. 
  • Check out their toys.  Even toys meant for little kids can feature unhealthy physical ideals. If you see any toys with giant muscles or unattainably thin or curvy bodies, it might be time to look for a more realistic replacement. 
  • Limit screen time.  Unchecked screen time can lead to hours of mindless scrolling, which can have your kid absorbing countless images of harmful body standards. Limit their screen time to gain a little more control over what they’re taking in. 

It’s hard for any parent to think about kids forming such harmful ideas about their bodies from such a young age. That’s why it’s so important to start these conversations early, and to be consistent and mindful about the messages we’re sending about our own and other peoples’ bodies. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.