“Do These Leggings Make My Butt Look Flat?”: How Parental Body Talk Effects a Child's Self-Image
I'm at a park with my nanny kids when a neighbor bikes past on a nearby road. One of the children comments on how slowly the neighbor rides. There is no right or wrong pace at which to engage in physical activity. "I wonder if the neighbor is as happy as I am that it's sunny with a breeze today," I say. "Feels so good to me to be outside." I want to create an environment of enoughness for this kindergartener while honoring that, so far for them, fast fast fast has always meant better, empowered. I want them to trust that slow can be empowering too.
This exchange made me think about how much parents' thoughts and behaviors around exercise and food may impact children's developing body image.
Body image is how a person sees themselves as well as how a person feels in and about their body. It is complex, and relates to their beliefs about bodies in general. Body image is not necessarily an accurate representation of how other people perceive one’s self, but is an internal, felt experience. According to Biolcati and colleagues (2020), body image is considered to be the mental portrait [from which] individuals form their physical selves. Cultivating a healthy sense of body image in children is linked to higher self-esteem and other health-promoting behaviors, while negative body image is correlated with lower self-esteem, depression, and disordered eating (Bologna, 2020). There are a variety of compounding factors that impact a child’s body image such as the media, peers, and parents/family.
Parents and families have a profound impact on their child’s body image, including the child's attitudes about body size and ability, starting at a very young age. Parents influence a child's body image and body size attitudes, in part, by their own expressions and evaluations about theirs and other people’s bodies. Negative body talk, which is characterized by “vocalizing self-deprecating evaluations of one’s own body in the presence of others,” has been shown to be a unique contributor to body image distress and disordered eating (Webb et al., 2015). Through negative body talk, parents and families may endorse unattainable body image ideals and align with the messages and images that children are exposed to in the media.
Negative comments parents say about themselves are detrimental for children to hear. I'm going to explain a little more about that, but first I want to say that if you identify with these examples, don't panic. You can make repairs with your child and make repairs with yourself at your own pace. It's okay to be where you are. Let's explore.
Negative comments serve as a model for children to subsequently critique themselves and others. Statements like, “I hate how I look in these jeans,” or “I shouldn’t have eaten all of those cookies,” are not as innocent as they might sound when you have young ears around. While it may seem harmless in the moment, when adults are critical of themselves, their bodies, or other people, children internalize these toxic messages and translate them onto themselves. For example, one study found that a child’s perception of their mother’s body dissatisfaction was correlated with the child’s body dissatisfaction in both girls and boys (Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003). Thus, if a parent engages in personal body image criticism, then the child begins to as well because it is normalized.
Not only do children begin to believe these "not good" messages about themselves, but they also ascribe these beliefs to their peers and to body size in general. Research has shown that children as young as four years old attribute negative characteristics to larger body sizes and positive characteristics to thinner bodies (Damiano et al., 2015). Additionally, research has found that preschoolers and young children aged five to eight years old prefer thin bodies, have biases against fatter bodies, experience body dissatisfaction, and are aware of dieting (Damiano et al., 2015). No one is born with these biases. They are learned. And quite effectively.
Negative body talk in the family can lead to less mindful eating, less body appreciation, and increased body dissatisfaction (Webb et al., 2018). When a child is taught, through seeing it modeled or otherwise, to focus on self-objectifying and self-degrading body assessments, it may disrupt the child's attention to their own internal bodily cues, undermining the mindful eating process. Additionally, hearing negative body talk reinforces the importance of the thin ideal and may imply that one’s body’s value lies in the way it looks. It overall conveys the message that bodies are something to be ashamed of and that it is normal to want your body to appear differently (Bologna, 2020).
The good news is that parents can also help to mitigate the impact of negative body talk on their children through the employment of certain protective factors. For starters, parents can help their children develop more positive body attitudes by working to unlearn their own previously held beliefs, biases, and behaviors around food, weight, exercise, and health. Parents can also work on the following:
Develop a household rule of no negative self-talk in front of children.
Employ a household rule of not commenting on others’ bodies. Instead, value aspects of the self that are not related to appearance or performance.
Model a flexible relationship to eating and movement and find ways to ensure that movement is joyful and not punitive or related to how one’s body looks.
Become a critical consumer of the media and challenge the media's messages with your children.
Parents are a tremendous resource and have the ability to help instill positive body image and self-esteem. While children will still be exposed to sociocultural influences, such as peers and the media, parents are in the unique position to counter the toxic messages their children receive around body image.
I'm at a park with my nanny kids when a neighbor bikes past on a nearby road. We’ve found some sturdy trees with low, thick branches to climb. The weight of my body is supported by the branch. I avoid the sap as I touch the texture of the bark beneath me. The kindergartener dangles from her knees, giggles, and we are enough.
Biolcati, R., Mancini, G., & Villano, P. (2020). ‘And yet I’m an adult now’. The influence of parental criticism on women’s body satisfaction/dissatisfaction during emerging adulthood. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 599-608. https://doi.org10.1080/02673843.2019.1699433
Bologna, C. (2020). What kids hear when you criticize your body in front of them. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-kids-hear-parent-criticize-body_l_5f36f2d4c5b69fa9e2fb7581
Damiano, S. R., Gregg, K. J., Spiel, E. C., McLean, S. A., Wetheim, E. H., & Paxton, S. J. (2015). Relationships between body size attitudes and body image of 4-year-old boys and girls, and attitudes of their fathers and mothers. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(16). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-015-0048-0
Lowes, J., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8(2), 135-147. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910703321649123
Webb, J. B., Rogers, C. B., Etzel, L., & Padro, M. P. (2018). “Mom, quit fat talking - I’m trying to eat (mindfully) here!”: Evaluating a sociocultural model of family fat talk, positive body image, and mindful eating in college women. Appetite, 126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.04.003