Last week, I made a girl cry. She is so skinny – like skin and bones skinny – and she had dark circles around her eyes. I told her to eat. Her mom said she (the girl) insists of being on a diet. I told her she does not have to go on a diet at all. I said it must be all the Kpop girl groups she’s watching and emulating. So she cried.
She is eight years old. She absolutely has no business being on a diet.
But I realize that I also have no business talking about someone else’s body. She was sitting quietly and I criticized her without any provocation. Maybe I made her feel ugly. As someone who has been suffering from body dysmorphia, I should have recognized that my heightened negative reaction could be an ingredient to hating her looks. It was too late, but I apologized.
Practicing body neutrality as an adult is already hard enough. In reality, I do not like my body. But how do I, as a mother of a 10-month-old, encourage my child to accept their body as it is, and end up not like me?
If you want to read more about raising kids that are body positive, Good Housekeeping published this article in 2021. It explains how parents can fight the damaging effects of diet culture on kids.
My list of five is far from being exhaustive or authoritative. I am not an expert in any way. These are simply the thoughts and observations of a new mom who came from a background of an undiagnosed eating disorder and body dysmorphia. Moreover, these are meant for parents of younger (infant to toddler) kids.
If you’re okay with that, let’s begin.
1. WATCH YOUR WORDS
There’s a saying in the Philippines, “Ang ginagawa ng matanda, nagiging tama sa mata ng bata.” (What an adult does becomes right in the eyes of a child.) In this case, it rings true for everything you, the parent, does or says.
Be always careful of critizing or praising people – our child, others, or ourselves – according to appearance. Any comment, either positive or negative, may affect a child by subconsciously taking note of which looks will gain your approval and which will not. If you can’t help but praise someone’s looks, do it without fanfare. Simply say your praise and move on.
Dissatisfaction about our body can show in simple ways like body checking in mirrors and reflective surfaces, saying things like “I look fat” or “I hate my thighs” or “I lost weight”, or expressing disgust when clothes do not fit. If you do feel this way, express this out of the child’s sight or hearing.
In connection to making comments about people’s looks, comparing people on their physical attributes is just as damaging. Even if the comparison shows the superiority of your child’s genes,
Also watch out for how you call others. Identifying people on their physical attributes (“the fat cashier,” “the tall guy,” “kulot” (curly-haired), “the girl with the small eyes”) might ingrain in them that appearance is an identity. Instead, look for virtues, values, strengths, or accomplishments. (“The girl who won the lifting contest last year.”) Better yet, use their names or occupations.
2. STOP MORALIZING FOOD
Food is food. Ascribing moral value to food gives us the impression that something is “good” or “bad”. Children may think that eating good food makes them good persons. Conversely, eating bad food makes them bad persons. Eating food from the “bad” list could lead to shame and guilt. Sometimes, on extreme cases, this could lead to eating disorders.
- Junk food
- Worthy (or “worth it”)
- Indulgent, decadent
- Cheating/Cheat day
- “I deserve this!”
- “I’ll just burn this off/work this off.”
What’s more: what if your family can’t afford food in the “good” list? More often than not, food considered good are the healthy, organic, minimally or unprocessed – and they are usually more expensive. Junk food is normally easily accessible and cheap. Access to “good” or “bad” food can be based on affluence. Our impressionable children may base their perception of our parenting on our ability to provide “good” food.
(If you want to know more, this article by Lizz Schumer on Good Housekeeping is a good starting point.)
3. NORMALIZE EXERCISE AND EATING NUTRITIOUS FOOD, IF YOU’RE INTO THAT
If you and your family are living a “healthy” (for lack of a better word) lifestyle, continue doing so but do not make a big deal out of it. Treat exercise, eating nutritious food, and other activities beneficial for your overall wellbeing as something everyone does. If you are doing these to lose weight, you can at least act like this is for your longevity and wellbeing.
In addition, let them eat.
4. KEEP TRACK OF THEIR EXPOSURE TO DIFFERENT MEDIA
All the time, we are surrounded by media that are trying to sell us something. Remember, this is not limited to advertisements. Stories, shows, movies, music, etc. are trying to convice us towards their direction. Simply by observing our behavior, we can already say that adults – who are supposedly mature enough – can be easily swayed to believe certain ideas. How much more impressionable children?
If we want our child to accept their body for what it is, we have to know what contents they are likely being influenced by. What do they watch on TV or the Internet? Who do they look up to? Do these media and influencers pose danger to our child’s perception of themselves?
Here are some red flags we need to watch out for:
- Characters showing bias towards a certain body type or beauty standard
- Characters being rewarded for adhering or changing to a certain body type or beauty standard
- Characters who are not of a certain beauty standard being excluded or unaccepted
- All “good” characters are of one body type or beauty standard and all “bad” characters are not
- Characters being judged according to how they look
- No diversity
- Idealizing a body type or beauty standard
Storybooks are easier to check, but if you are allowing your child screentime, shows, movies, music, and videos are harder to supervise. Understandably, we do not have much time to be watching nursery rhymes on YouTube. At the very least, we can be present with our child when they are on these media, so that if ever something questionable comes up, we are there to explain it to them. We can also download in advance resources approved by other parents and reputable organizations as encouraging body neutrality.
While we’re at it, stay away from beauty pageants.
5. ASK OTHER ADULTS TO DO THE SAME WHEN AROUND YOUR CHILD
When think toxic Filipino traits, always talking about weight is always at the top of the list. Babies and children are not shielded from this. Our older relatives love doting on the tabachingching grandchild, and extremely concerned over the child who is naturally thin.
Everything in this list is hard, but this one is the hardest. There is no way to control how other people act or react. What we can do as parents is to respectfully inform other people about the rules we are establishing for our family.
If you notice, everything in this list requires us parents to always be mindful of ourselves. We are the first role models for them. If we want them to become better humans, we have to be better human ourselves.
Thanks to National Cancer Institute @nci for making this photo available freely on Unsplash 🎁 https://unsplash.com/photos/BQPi8F_UON0