Family

How to Make Kids Comfortable in Their Own Bodies

The constant pressure to be thin is a bigger health concern for children than obesity.

Photo illustration of various female silhouettes with different body types on balance beams.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

A few days ago, my 4-year-old lifted up her shirt, pointed to her belly, and said, “Mommy, why is my tummy so big?” My heart skipped a beat, and I thought, This can’t be happening already. A moment later it occurred to me that she was probably (hopefully?) asking an innocent question about why the size of her stomach changes throughout the day, but I was nevertheless mortified. Recently my daughter has been asking me more and more whether she’s pretty and if she looks like a princess. She’s clearly getting the message from our society that looks and body size matter—even at the age of 4.

She’s not alone. Research suggests that preschool- and elementary-age children are more dissatisfied with their bodies now than ever before, that girls as young as 3 already perceive heaviness as “bad” and thinness as “good,” and that more than one-third of 5-year-old girls restrict their eating in order to stay thin.

If the pressure to be thin doesn’t seem like a big deal in itself, consider that kids who are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely than others to become depressed and develop eating disorders or other dangerous habits. We constantly discuss the need to tackle the crisis of childhood obesity, and rightfully so—but we need to remember that more kids today have eating disorders than Type 2 diabetes. Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls, and nearly 1 in 6 high school boys, have disordered eating patterns serious enough to warrant medical help; one study found that 1 in 8 girls have made herself vomit at least once in the past three months.*

With all this in mind, I often wonder how to talk to my kids about body size and stigma, both to minimize the chance that they will grow to dislike their bodies and to ensure that they treat people of all body types with respect. These questions don’t, at least for me, have obvious answers. A few weeks ago, I heard my 7-year-old describe someone as “fat,” and although my mom antennae bristled, I had no idea what to do. Should I chastise him for using that word? Ignore the comment? Use the opportunity to start a conversation about weight stigma?

To find out how to handle situations like this, and more generally how to engage with kids about weight and body image, I reached out to psychologists, pediatricians, eating disorder experts, researchers, and authors. I learned some surprising things.

First and most importantly: Never, ever comment on your kids’ weight, even if you think you’re being constructive. “It’s never helpful,” says Massachusetts-based pediatrician Clay Jones. For one thing, emphasizing a child’s weight reinforces the notion that thinness is an important ideal, a message they already get from TV, books, movies, teachers, and friends. The pressure to be thin can make kids—even skinny ones—self-conscious, lower their self-esteem, and increase the risk for depression. In a 2016 meta-analysis, researchers analyzed results from 42 studies and concluded that encouraging kids and adolescents to lose weight or criticizing their weight incites negative self-perceptions and disordered eating.

It’s understandable to want your kids to be healthy, of course—but weight doesn’t need to be part of a discussion about health and fitness. In fact, says Jennifer Harriger, a developmental psychologist who studies body image and weight stigma at Pepperdine University, it’s best not to point fingers at children at all. If you’re concerned about your child’s health, set new family goals that encourage healthy behavior. “Say, ‘I think as a family it would be a really great idea if we all go for walks more often,’ or ‘Let’s go take a hike together this weekend,’ ” Harriger says. Food-wise, you could set a goal to eat a more diverse range of foods, or more colorful foods, as a family. This way, healthy behavior is framed as a fun, collective objective rather than a personal admonishment. It’s also best to avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” because moralizing food in this way reinforces the idea that what people eat reflects on their value or character.

Another thing we should do as parents is to stop emphasizing appearance with our kids—especially girls, who hear looks-related comments far more than boys do. Whenever we tell girls we like their dresses or their hair, we send the message that looks are among their most noticeable and valuable assets. If other people comment on your daughter’s looks, consider reframing the message in your response. “Take the opportunity to teach a little lesson in a kind and thoughtful way: ‘There are lots more interesting things to talk about than our looks! Did you know we recently went on vacation?’ ” says Lexie Kite, the director of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting positive body image. Likewise, resist the impulse to make comments about other people’s bodies—even remarks that seem like compliments. Hey, you must have lost some weight, you’re looking good!

This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t talk to your kids about bodies and body image. “Don’t pretend like your daughter’s body doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter—teach her that it matters a lot, but not for the reasons she’s been taught,” Kite explains. “Teach her to understand and relate to her body from the inside—how it feels and what it can do—not just how it appears.” Talk to her about how cool it is that her body can do cartwheels, that her fingers can play the piano, and that her legs are so good at kicking a soccer ball. And while it’s normal for kids to want to look nice, find ways to inject other values into your conversations. If your daughter is in a rhinestone-obsessed princess phase like my 4-year-old is, ask her what her job or expertise as a princess is, to reinforce the idea that her value, even as a member of royalty, isn’t defined by her looks.

Model body acceptance as a parent, too. No matter how you feel about your own body, “you cannot body shame yourself in front of your kid,” says journalist and mother Virginia Sole-Smith, the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America (and a friend). If your child hears you lamenting that your thighs are too jiggly, she’s going to infer that the size and shape of her thighs must matter, too. If you talk about your body in front of your kids, Sole-Smith says, talk about what it can do, or how it feels—not what it looks like.

It is also good, if not imperative, to talk to kids about weight stigma and body image. Just as research now suggests that white kids won’t grow up “colorblind” if you avoid talking to them about race, kids also won’t grow up blind or immune to weight stigma if you don’t discuss it, Sole-Smith says. “Parents absolutely need to be talking about this with their kids—and we absolutely need to be talking about it even with our skinny kids, even our boys, even our kids who are unlikely to experience weight stigma,” she explains. In a study published this month, Harvard researchers reported that while Americans have become less implicitly biased when it comes to race, skin tone, and sexual orientation over the past decade, they have become more implicitly biased regarding weight. So if you don’t frame the message for your kids, Sole-Smith says, “they’re going to get the wrong message elsewhere.”

One key point to make regularly, Sole-Smith says, is that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s a good thing. Alongside this, if your child is mature enough, explain that our culture overvalues thinness and that sometimes, as a result, people with bigger bodies are treated meanly or unfairly. Kite agrees: “Let them know that many people and companies in this world try to convince little girls and grown women that they should shrink and take up less space, but it’s a mean lie. This lie is intended to get girls to spend money and time worrying about their bodies instead of living and leading and serving and taking up space doing good in the world—and, too often, it works.”

What if your children tell you that they think they’re fat? Resist the inclination to reassure them that they’re not, Kite suggests. “If we give size-based comments the power to build us up, we reinforce their power to tear us down,” she says. Instead, talk about why it can be good to have some fat—it keeps you warm, among other things. Reassure your kids that their appearance doesn’t define them and that you love them no matter what size they are. It can also help to explain to tweens and adolescents that their bodies are going through periods of rapid growth and that their current size and shape may soon change. (If you’re concerned your child or teen might be developing an eating disorder—here are some signs you should look out for—then talk to your pediatrician or read the website for the National Eating Disorders Association, which has a free helpline and an online database of treatment providers.)

If you find out your child is being fat-shamed by peers, here’s what you can do. First, be compassionate and empathetic, Sole-Smith advises. Tell your child that you know those words must have really hurt. “You can’t jump straight to Who cares what you look like, you’re more than your body, because that won’t feel true to a kid who was just fat-shamed,” she says. But after commiserating, try to bring the conversation back to the larger issue of why things like this happen—that our culture puts too much emphasis on looks and it’s unfair—but that our differences, ultimately, are what make us special. If the shaming happened at school, absolutely contact the teacher or principal and insist they treat the incident as they would any other kind of bullying. “Our kids need to see we don’t accept this,” Sole-Smith says.

What if you overhear your child referring to someone else as “fat”? First: Stay calm. Although your instinct might be to admonish your child and say something like “That’s not nice!” or “Don’t say that!” that kind of reaction only reinforces the idea that fat is bad, Kite says. If the word wasn’t said in a rude way, but was just descriptive, keep in mind that a number of activists embrace the word fat as an acceptable way to describe larger bodies. Sole-Smith adds that you could, if you wanted more details, ask your child why they described the person this way, and use that to generate a conversation, or you say something like “Yes, that person is bigger, and other people are smaller; people come in different shapes and sizes.”

At this point, I imagine many of you are thinking: How can it be helpful to tell kids that bigger bodies are OK when obesity is such a huge public health problem? Shouldn’t we be telling kids that thinner really is better? There are a few assumptions to unpack here. First, there’s the idea that weight is a clear indicator of health. “As a society and as medical professionals, we’ve been brainwashed to think that weight is synonymous with health—that somebody at a higher weight is automatically less healthy,” Harriger says, but “a lot of research has been coming out recently that demonstrates that there is not necessarily a direct link.”

Everyone I interviewed for this article made this point, and there’s a growing body of research to back it up. This is not to say that every overweight person is in good health, of course; but big bodies absolutely can be healthy, sometimes more so than small ones. Wellness indicators that many doctors now prefer over weight include blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin levels, and the types and amounts of fats in a person’s blood. “We should affirm the whole rainbow concept—[that] big, small, thin, not so thin—it’s all good, as long as you’re healthy,” says Karen Sadler, a pediatrician who specializes in eating disorders at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

There’s another reason to question the idea that promoting thinness is good for kids or for society. When we send the message that big is bad, we also imply that making yourself smaller (i.e., losing weight) is good. But research suggests that not only does dieting not work in terms of achieving long-term weight loss (this has been shown to be true for adolescents, too) but also that the more weight people lose through dieting, the more weight they later end up gaining, the less physically active they become, and the more likely they are to develop disordered eating habits. Dieting, then, is practically the opposite of healthy. (Note that there is a difference between dieting—eating a certain way specifically to lose weight—and eating a varied, healthy diet.) And remember, too, that the pressure to be thin itself, independent of dieting, can deflate kids’ self-esteem and increase their risk for depression.

Here’s some final research to ponder: In a recent small clinical trial, researchers used an online program to teach female college students to feel better about their bodies and to reject pressure to be thin. They found that the program not only led to less dieting, but that it also prevented future weight gain: Young women who participated in the program didn’t gain as much weight over the next two years as women who did not participate. The authors speculate this is in part because, when kids internalize the idea that thinness isn’t essential, they stop dieting and engaging in other unhealthy weight-control habits, which typically backfire anyway. The best way to keep our kids healthy, then, may be to help them—as well as us—realize that the size and shape of our bodies really doesn’t matter.

Correction, Jan. 23, 2019: This article originally cited an erroneous American Academy of Pediatrics report saying 1 in 10 girls makes herself vomit daily.