Standing in front of the mirror at dance class at age 10, I wondered why my thighs touched. My knees looked fat. Opening the refrigerator door, I heard my dad’s voice “A moment on your lips is a lifetime on your hips.” I loved riding my pink huffy with the banana seat, but “riding a bike is lazy, you’ll get secretary butt,” he said.
And at age 14, I developed an eating disorder.
Restrict. Binge. Purge. Over exercise. I measured my worth by the shape of my body, which was filled with internal feelings of disgust and not being good enough. I sought attention and approval from my family and encountered much disappointment.
Today, I’m a 39-year-old woman who loves most of her body with all the aging flaws of four c sections, four breastfed children, stretch marks, and a booty.
I have two daughters and two sons, and I recognize that I have a huge influence on their own body image based on how I see mine and what is projected onto them. Here’s what I learned about building your children’s body image, as both a mother and psychotherapist:
Encourage healthy eating and exercise
Engage in healthy behavior for yourself; your children are always watching. Ask your child if they want to ride their bike next to you when you run. Before bed, lead the family in stretching, meditation, or yoga as a way to wind down. If the activities are fun and relationship building, everyone will want to participate. Note: There’s a difference in exercising to be healthy, and exercising to be skinny!
Praise personality traits over physical appearance
“Your laugh is contagious.” “Great job on your test, you’re so smart!” We want our daughters to love themselves for who they are not by what they look like. Physical appearance can be a motivating adjunct to how we feel about ourselves, not the sole reason.
Encourage your daughter to come up with a list of things she’s good at, what she feels proud of, and what her aspirations are. Journaling and vision boards are great art activities for all of us. Draw pictures, cut out words from a magazine, find meaningful quotes to inspire. Hang it up in her room so she can see it every day. I firmly believe we need to nurture the internal and build confidence to have positive results externally.
I never call myself fat or ugly (at least out loud). Sometimes I’ll even say, “I feel proud of myself for helping someone today.” My daughter will often times roll her eyes or laugh, and tell me that I’m bragging. Then, we’ll have a conversation about the importance of loving ourselves.
Everything in moderation. Some families are “too healthy” and have high expectations of how their child “should” be eating. This can cause kids to sneak foods or act out when they’re away from home. Kids are going to be exposed to less than healthy foods socially, and you can’t control everything. Don’t shame less-than-healthy choices. And don’t shame yourself in front of them (“I really “shouldn’t” be eating this chocolate cake).
We’re not perfect. There are times I’ve had peanut butter m&ms and jalapeno chips for dinner and fell short of making workouts a priority. But not beating yourself up over it is key. Positivity is contagious and needs to start at home.
Originally published at www.fitnessmagazine.com