If there’s one thing I’m grateful for about the evolution of social media (especially TikTok), it’s the growing representation of all body types and the encouragement to love the body you’re in. Brands are responding to the body positivity movement by including diverse models in their media representation, and I’m finally seeing bodies that look like mine all across the web. Five years ago the fashion and beauty industries seemed inaccessible to me; now, I feel like I can fully participate, no holds barred.
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Obviously, this wasn’t always the case. I grew up with a lot of self-loathing toward my own body, not only because of the mainstream media (and social media wasn’t even a thing yet during most of my formative years!), but also because of the explicit and implicit messages I received about my body from the community around me. My parents were constantly dieting to try to lose weight, all my friends were smaller than me, and I was always the odd one out at clothes swaps — I didn’t fit into anything.
Yes, the body positivity movement has done wonders for my self-esteem and the self-esteem of countless women (though, obviously, social media isn’t all body-positive sunshine and roses). But this is a “movement” that should start at home. I want to enable my daughters and granddaughters to love and honor the bodies they’re in, but I also know that the “You’re beautiful” platitudes aren’t always enough. So the question remains — how do we cultivate a healthy body image in our daughters in a way that is loving, affirming, and will last them a lifetime?
(Note: I want to address the fact that body image issues affect men as well as women, and how you speak to your sons about their bodies is just as important about how you speak to your daughters. Most of the below points apply equally to all genders, and you may notice my pronoun use changing throughout.)
Give non-physical affirmations and compliments.
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Those compliments you’ve been giving your daughter on how beautiful she looks may actually be doing more harm than good. When was the last time you affirmed something non-physical about your child? Try to focus on other achievements — have they done well on a test or made a club recently? Maybe they didn’t do well on a test but studied super hard — praise their efforts! All of this will reinforce that they are more than just their appearance, and will give them a whole slew of other attributes to be proud of.
Talk about bodies, but not just how they look.
One big thing I wish my parents had done was to actually talk to me about my body. Sure, I got the sex talk and they would tell me I was beautiful, but they never talked about the strength and capabilities of a woman’s body. It can make a child, for crying out loud! Our bodies are capable of so much, but I saw mine as just a burden for much of my formative years. I never took time to appreciate it or thank it for what it did for me on a daily basis — because of that, I never cared about nourishing it. Praise and educate your child about all the wonderful things their body does for them on a daily basis, regardless of what their external appearance is.
Don’t restrict your child’s body.
Don’t get me wrong, your sons and daughters need to be educated on bodily boundaries and ethics (especially related to sex), but they should be taught about these dynamics in a way that empowers them to make their own healthy decisions. I grew up immersed in a Christian culture that put a lot of emphasis on female “purity” — this mostly meant covering up your body to make sure you didn’t cause men to look at your body and have sinful thoughts. I could go on a complete diatribe explaining how harmful this is, but for now I’ll leave it at this: any type of lessons that teach your daughters (explicitly or implicitly) that they’re responsible for how men view and treat their bodies is inherently harmful.
Does this mean we should let our kids brazenly do whatever they want with their bodies? Eh, probably not. But again, providing your child with the appropriate tools to make well-thought-out decisions will be the most beneficial for them in the long run. Educate your children on safe sex and the risks that come with it. Help your daughter find the clothes that she feels comfortable in, and teach her to dress for herself and not for others.
Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
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There is absolutely zero template for how a healthy body “should” look. BMI charts, I’m looking at you for saying I’m unhealthy and obese when I’m definitely not. But if charts and appearance don’t indicate whether or not we’re healthy, what does?
First off, I want to reiterate — it’s okay if your daughter’s thighs jiggle (or full-on make waves like mine) or if she has tummy rolls when she sits. In fact, both of these things are normal and even healthy. It’s okay for her to have cellulite and it’s okay for her to grow — none of these things are inherently unhealthy, and none of them should be used as indicators of your child’s health.
Teach your children how to appropriately assess their health. There are plenty of indicators not related to weight — how are their energy levels? Are they sleeping well? Are they experiencing any brain fog or lethargy? How is their mood? Do they get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs? How is their posture? Any aches and pains that don’t seem to go away? The list goes on — these are just some of the indicators you and your child can use to assess their health and see where dietary/exercise adjustments may need to be made. My whole outlook on my body changed when I started paying attention to how I was feeling and what I needed. I would notice my body telling me when I needed to go for a walk, or when I was craving carrots or carbs. Teach your kids that their bodies are smart and are constantly informing them about their own needs!
NEVER talk about weight.
Nix the weight talk. Please. I don’t care if you think it’s positive — stop talking about the numbers on the scale. Even if you’re referencing yourself or a distant relative or even a celebrity. Just stop. Here’s why.
I was obsessed with that little three-digit number growing up. I’ve been 180 pounds since I was a sophomore in high school. And I want to reiterate that I wasn’t what you’d call a “big” kid — in the grand scheme of things, I looked pretty normal. Nobody told me that there are genetic factors that influence your weight, that some people are just built bigger, or that where you carry your weight is a bigger health indicator than how much you weigh — I just saw the number on the scale and knew I wanted it to be lower. The doctors saw the number on the scale and always praised me when I dropped a few pounds. My parents, again, were always trying to lose weight. My friends were always trying to lose weight. The rhetoric surrounding me was always about weight, about a silly little number that indicates nothing other than the gravitational pull on your body. It’s silly. Don’t talk about it (unless you’re talking about how silly it is, in which case, by all means, go for it).
Change how you talk about foods.
There’s no such thing as good food or bad food. Every food has some nutritional value, however miniscule it may be. Instead of focusing on “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods or even mandating that your kids eat their veggies, encourage them again to check in with their bodies and see what their bodies are asking them for. Have them pay attention to how certain foods make them feel, and encourage them to listen to their cravings and to actually give into them! Everything is okay in moderation (barring allergies, of course), and if a small bowl of ice cream will satisfy their sugar craving, tell them to go for it. If they’re craving carbs, maybe they need some roasted potatoes or homemade sourdough. Again, our bodies are smart! Our bodies tell us what they need, enough so that we don’t need to worry about “good” or “bad” foods — we just need to pay attention to our bodies.
Teach body neutrality.
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Last but not least, teach your daughter how to have healthy body neutrality. The reality is, no matter what we do, none of us will love how our bodies look all the time. Body neutrality is okay with that — it’s being able to look at yourself in the mirror and say “I don’t love how I look today, and that’s okay.”
Don’t get me wrong, body positivity is great. All bodies are beautiful and all bodies are worthy. But like its body-negative counterpart, body positivity is very much tied into our emotions, which fluctuate on the daily. You’re not always going to look at your body with affection, no matter how much body positivity you have. Body neutrality is a way of loving yourself no matter how you feel about your body on any given day. In fact, it’s loving your body no matter how you feel about it on any given day, and is one of the most helpful tools to cultivate a healthy body image in your sons and daughters.
What body wisdom will you pass on to the women in your life? Share it with us in the comments.
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