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Promoting Positive Body Image in Young Children

When my preschooler asked me if she was skinny, I was beside myself. After a bit of research, a bit of thought and a lot of introspection here are research based tips on promoting positive body image in young children

When I entered into the world of parenting, I anticipated outside influences would make their way into their home. I did. I just thought it would take a bit longer. Actually, I hoped it would take a lot longer. Ya sure, we’ve had some potty humour reported back to us from the preschool classroom thanks to our tattle-tailing three-year-old, “A boy in my class said [insert any hybrid of rude words here].” But that’s been about it. Until the other night…

We were getting ready for bed. As my little girl was getting undressed, she looked down at herself and then at me. Her big eyes were especially wide, “Mama, am I skinny?” she earnestly asked.

The question winded me.

Don’t get me wrong, I foresaw this question coming well before I became a parent. I was a teenage girl who was both grateful that I was skinny and regularly worried if my perceived worth was contingent on my dress size. Since my teens, I’ve thought and re-thought out how I could instill in my future daughter(s) a spirit of resiliency against the superficial standards we are inundated with every. single. day. But this was too soon for my sweet daughter to be evaluating herself and using such a word. She just turned four a couple of weeks ago.

I scrambled for a response and a tone that masked my fear and uncertainty. “What does skinny mean, honey?” Her self-reflection switch gears as she admitted, “I don’t know.” “Well,” I gulped, “skinny is a bit of a funny way to describe someone. A better thing to say is that someone is beautiful, nice, or smart. And you are beautiful, smart, and very special to me.” I felt concerned by the exchange but thought we had temporarily side-stepped a landmine.

Two days later, we were in the car en route to school when I realized that was not the case. My ignorant oblivion was pierced with her naive tone, “Why do people want to be skinny, Mama?” This time, I had the wherewithal to ask where she had heard the term.  She shared that a friend at school had talked about wanting to be skinny and then proceeded to ask if trees were skinny, grass was skinny and basically named everything she saw out her window. I encouraged this tangent. After dropping  my girl off at school, I had a moment where I felt incredibly sad and vulnerable. You see, these two incidences were the only time either of my kids had asked about physical appearance. And the term she was asking about is one laden with connotations and health implications. According to a study conducted by the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, as many as one-third of girls ages 10-14  are dieting. And, the National Eating Disorders Association found that between 40 and 60% of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight. After I gathered myself up from a state of immense vulnerability, I started to generate a plan of attack to help combat any emphasis on weight and promote positive body image in young children.

Body Image in Young Children:

5 Ways To Instill Positive Body Image In Children

When my preschooler asked me if she was skinny, I was beside myself. After a bit of research, a bit of thought and a lot of introspection here are research based tips on promoting positive body image in young children

Stop making disparaging comments about my own body: I never say anything disparaging to my kids about myself. But I do joke with my husband about my postpartum body when the kids are within earshot. This is stopping now. I don’t want the example I set to be that it’s okay to rip yourself apart. Furthermore, in reading about this topic, I unsurprisingly found daughters witnessing their mothers’ attitudes towards their own bodies has a huge impact on body image in young children.

Celebrate their strengths: I love my kids’ different aptitudes, personality traits, and interests. And am, I’m using this opportunity as a reminder to continue to celebrate their accomplishments.

Educate them on health and wellness: Empowering my children to know what makes them healthy will help them maintain a healthy body weight and feel in control of their overall health.

Avoid fat and skinny talk: Though my little girl admits to hearing the word skinny from a friend at school, she could have just as easily heard me using the term evaluating a model on TV, reflecting on a past picture of myself, or in some other context. From this point forward, I’m going to do my utmost to ban the use of fat and skinny when referring to anyone in any context.

Be active: Based on sport psychological research, exercise improves mood, decreases stress, increases pride in physical accomplishments, improves body image, and increases feelings of satisfaction in oneself.

I know I’ve only just begun on this quest to promote positive body image in my kids, but it will always be a priority.

How do you promote positive body image in your own kids? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

  1. I am so glad you wrote about this! It is so hard with all of the fake “reality” shows and celebrities these kids grow up seeing when they are older. A solid structure of a good body image needs to be learned while they are young. I need to watch what I say too… these little changes can make a Big difference for our little ones!

  2. Such a well written and relatable post. Both my girls are 4 and 2 and even my 4 year old has asked a few probing questions. You offer great, realistic thoughts on handling it. Glad I found you.

  3. Yes to all of this! I never talk about weight or my body in a negative way. When my son asked us why my husband and I like to go workout we say, “because it helps keep us healthy and strong!”

  4. I’m going to be honest with you. I really wanted to read this post right away, but it’s a little to close to home that I had to wait a bit. You definitely nailed it. I know my daughter is so close to start asking about this. And I really need to work on the negative self-talk. I try not to around the kids, but why risk it? May as well stop it all together. Love this post.

    1. Thanks so much. I’ll be honest. It took a few tries to write this because I found the situation to be really upsetting. Thanks so much (as always) for your encouragement and support.

  5. Wow wow wow! What a moment! That question would have winded me too! Amazing how young it starts and I am no stranger to the prevalence of “diet clubs” in early elementary school because they want to be like their moms. Tip number one is the money shot! So important to talk positively about our own bodies in front of our children!

  6. Such an important topic! I’ve definitely thought a lot about this with my daughter, even though she is only two. I make a conscious effort to tell her positive things that aren’t tied to her image (though it’s really hard not comment on how cute she is!) and to avoid making comments about how I think I look in front of her. I know the day she starts worrying about her body is sadly inevitable, but I want to do what I can to curb that concern for as long as possible.

  7. Stopping the talk about losing the baby weight is a good one! I guess I never thought about how that would come across to the boys before. Growing up it seemed like my mom was always doing one type of diet or another, that is something I remember very vividly. I don’t want the boys to see me that way, but rather as someone who was strong and healthy.

  8. My youngest asked a similar question the same question and compared herself to her older sister who is very athletic. It allowed a conversation about how God needs us to be different. Loved it!! This is a great post Alana, keep up the great work.

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