What are your first thoughts, when you look at yourself in the mirror every morning? Do you appreciate yourself and your physical appearance or do you focus on small blemishes and look for new signs of ageing? Perhaps, you notice the radiant smile on your face early in the morning or you bash yourself up for eating that extra slice of cake, at last night’s party? How we perceive our body and the bodies of others around us, is deeply rooted in our body image.
As a parent, your body image and perceptions related to the “ideal body image”, also get passed on to your children. This can happen in one of two ways. On one hand, children also start internalizing similar beliefs such as their parents about the physical body and appearance, and may judge themselves or others, who don’t meet those standards. On the other hand, if as parents you hold on to certain unrealistic and toxic beliefs about body shape, size or appearance, you are likely to question and comment on your child’s physical appearance, clothing, and food intake.
‘Body Positivity’ refers to the idea that all bodies are equal and worthy of love & respect, irrespective of shape, size, appearance, color, etc. As a culture and movement, it goes on to acknowledge that popular media has a great role to play in determining our perceptions about our bodies. It tries to break away from society’s need to categorize all bodies into binary categories of good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, and right or wrong. How we perceive our body, which is our body image, also influences our thoughts and feelings about our bodies, and has a great influence on other aspects of our life, like our mental health, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, confidence issues, and the like. Excessive preoccupation with the perceived flaws of one’s body can also have dire consequences and may warrant a diagnosis of a clinical mental health condition.
The foundation of our beliefs about our body image is often laid out in childhood, during the early formative years. The messages that a child may receive from family, peers, or celebrity role models influence their acceptance of their own body. Therefore, it is imperative that parents consciously try to promote body positivity among their children and adolescents. It is really not as hard as it seems. It’s about engaging in certain behaviors and not engaging in certain others. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Be aware of your own body image: Before you talk to your child about body positivity, it is important that you delve deeper into your own beliefs about physical appearance and more importantly, your own body. If you don’t feel confident about the way you look, it would be difficult to help your child be otherwise. Further, ask yourself some tough questions about what are your beliefs about the “ideal body”, and question those beliefs. Where is it coming from? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Is there anything you can do to release those beliefs?
- Watch out for stereotypic behaviors and words: Be aware of what kind of messages you send out about physical appearance in front of children. It is common knowledge that children pick up on and imitate adult behavior. For example, you see a popular celeb on television and make a comment like, “Oh, she seems to have put on weight”, or you look at yourself in the mirror, and say, “I am losing hair… I look ugly”; you are indirectly telling your child that physical appearance is the most important thing and even defines one’s overall self-worth.
- Positive Conversations: Focus on health-related conversations at home, instead of appearance-related. For example, while talking about inculcating healthy fitness-related habits at home, focus on why it is important to stay fit and active, instead of focusing on the need to lose weight. If you see your teenage daughter not eating well and losing weight, instead of saying that, “hey, you look very thin”, you could say something like, “I can notice you have not been eating much… is there anything I can do to help?” In conversations, it’s important to focus on the health factor rather than just mere looks.
Here are some other quick pointers, to help you raise body positive children:
- As a family, you can set health-focused goals rather than weight-loss or appearance focused goals.
- When appreciating your children or others in front of them, focus on their positive qualities, attributes, skills, etc. instead of just complimenting them on their looks or dressing.
- Talk to your children about the negative and unrealistic standards of beauty which the media industry propagates. If possible, search for the no make-up looks of celebs or show them videos of celeb body transformation, wherein the celebs may have documented the tough journey of doing so.
- Avoid comparing children with others and instead help your child focus on the positive traits of themselves and their friends.
- Politely correct your children when they only value someone, because of that person’s physical appearance.
I believe that as parents, teachers, and caregivers, we have the power to make the world a better place and do away with negative stereotypes, one child at a time. So here is hoping that an entire generation will be raised to be body positive and then we can finally, do away with the stereotyping of physical appearance, and learn to appreciate all bodies.