Moms, Kids, and Body Image

Body Image and Your Kids

"On a diet, you can't eat." This is what one 5-year-old girl had to say in a study on girls' ideas about dieting and body image. This and other research has shown that daughters are more likely to have ideas about dieting when their mothers diet. Children pick up on comments about dieting concepts that may seem harmless, such as limiting high-fat foods or eating less. Long before girls enter their teen years, they are thinking about dieting and perhaps developing unhealthy eating habits.

Many things can spark weight concerns for girls and impact their eating habits, such as:

  • Having mothers concerned about their own weight
  • Having mothers who are overly concerned about their daughters' weight and looks
  • Natural weight gain and other body changes during puberty
  • Peer pressure to look a certain way
  • Struggles with self-esteem
  • Media images showing the ideal female body as thin

Many teenage girls of average weight think they are overweight and are not satisfied with their bodies. Having extreme weight concerns -- and acting on those concerns -- can harm girls' social, physical, and emotional growth. Actions such as skipping meals or taking diet pills can lead to poor nutrition and difficulty learning. For some, extreme efforts to lose weight can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. For others, the pressure to be thin can actually lead to binge eating disorder: overeating that is followed by extreme guilt. What's more, girls are more likely to further risk their health by trying to lose weight in unhealthy ways, such as by smoking or taking diet pills.

While not as common, boys are also at risk of developing unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders. Body image becomes an important issue for teenage boys as they struggle with body changes and pay more attention to media images of the "ideal" muscular male.

Tips for Parents Concerned About Body Image

Your children pay attention to what you say and do about your own body image -- even if it doesn't seem like it sometimes. If you are always complaining about your weight or feel pressure to change your body shape, your children may learn that these are important concerns. If you are attracted to new "miracle" diets, they may learn that restrictive dieting is better than making healthy lifestyle choices. If you tell your daughter that she would be prettier if she lost weight, she will learn that the goals of weight loss are to be attractive and accepted by others.

Parents are role models and should try to follow the healthy eating and physical activity patterns that you would like your children to follow -- for your health and theirs. Extreme weight concerns and eating disorders, as well as obesity, are hard to treat. Yet you can play an important role in preventing these problems for your children.

How to help your child develop a positive body image and relate to food in a healthy way:

  • Make sure your child understands that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty.
  • Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape.
  • Allow your child to make decisions about food, while making sure that plenty of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available.
  • Compliment your child on her or his efforts, talents, accomplishments, and personal values.
  • Restrict television viewing, and watch television with your child and discuss the media images you see.
  • Encourage your school to enact policies against size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing, and name-calling; support the elimination of public weigh-ins and fat measurements.
  • Keep the lines of communication with your child open.


Additional Information on Body Image and Your Kids:

  1. BodyWorks: A Toolkit for Healthy Girls and Strong Women-- BodyWorks is a program designed to help parents and caregivers of young adolescent girls (ages 9-13) improve family eating and activity habits. Using the BodyWorks Toolkit, the program focuses on parents as role models and provides them with hands-on tools to make small, specific behavior changes to prevent obesity and help maintain a healthy weight.
  2. For Parents and Caregivers-- is a site designed to help adolescent girls (ages 10-16) learn more about some of the unique health issues and social situations they will encounter during the teen years. The Parent/Caregiver section provides resources and links to helpful information for you, to help you prepare to deal with some of the issues your girls will likely face.
  3. Helping Your Overweight Child-- This publication provides information on how to be supportive and help your child lose weight and become healthier and more active.
  4. Eating Disorders -- This online publication written for parents or caregivers explains the warning signs of eating disorders and what you should do if you suspect your child may have an eating disorder.
  5. Information and Referrals from the National Eating Disorders Association -- This educates parents about the effects of over-emphasizing physical beauty and body shape with their children. It also lists helpful tips to help you educate your children about eating disorders and teach them to accept all body shapes and sizes, including their own.
  6. Tool Kit for Teen Care: Media and Body Image -- This online publication from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology provides information on unhealthy body image, warning signs of a teen with an unhealthy body image, and what can be done to improve an adolescent’s own body image. It also includes a list of additional resources.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on May 08, 2016
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