As a mom, and as a body-positive-warrior, it’s incredibly important to me to focus not only on learning to love myself, but teaching my daughters to love themselves from the beginning. There is so much out there that will hurt them. There are diet ads, and billboards for liposuction, and mean kids at school… I can’t make all of those go away. But I can arm them with the best tools and support I have available.
Teaching kids to be body positive is one of the most radical things we can do to further the Body Acceptance cause. By raising a generation to be critical of diet culture, body policing, and body discrimination; by raising them to love their bodies as the amazing tools they are, and to spread that love and acceptance wherever they go, we have the ability to change our culture, one beautiful child at a time.
Even if you aren’t a parent, these tips can be incredibly useful in all your dealings with young people in your life. Here are my top three tips on how to teach kids to be body-positive…
1. Don’t talk negatively about your body, or anyone else’s
This is hard one for a lot of people. Even though you would never tell a child they are fat, or their skin is too dark or not dark enough, or their body is not capable, you may often say it about yourself. Without even thinking, you may sigh about how you used to be smaller, complain about the size of your arms in a picture, or discuss changing your natural hair, all within earshot of your little ones. Hearing adults talk negatively about their bodies means that’s how you should talk about your body. They are tiny little mimics. And the way you talk becomes the voice in their head.
2. Make “fat” a neutral word
Did you know that the average 10-year-old girl is more afraid of getting fat, than getting cancer? In a world that demonizes fat, it’s often seen as the worst thing a person can be. Fat is equated with stupidity, laziness, and even evil. Fat characters on TV shows kids watch are often portrayed as dumb or bad.
The word fat is simply a descriptor word. When discussing a body it’s talking about adipose tissue. You can use it to describe someone who has a lot of adipose. When talking about food, it’s simply one of many nutrients that your body needs. A nutrient that young minds especially need, as fats are what help build their brain tissue.
When discussing the word fat, use it neutrally. Talk about how fat in food can make them smart. Foods like salmon, eggs, and olive oil are all very fatty, and nutritious for their growing bodies.
This applies to other terms in the body positivity realm as well, such as age, gender, race, and ability. All of those descriptors can be neutralized and used to empower.
3. Don’t moralize food
In our modern, media driven world, it’s hard not to have issues with food. Food is both championed and demonized. There is always some new Super Food that is supposed to melt belly fat or some new Bad Food that it turns out is awful for you. Kale good, gluten bad. A few years ago, Fat was the demon, and a whole gaggle of fat-free foods came out. Turns out they had twice as much sugar. Then sugar became the demon and it was sugar-free, stevia, and agave.
Listen to me: Food has no moral value. Food is simply a fuel we need to intake to survive.
Framing food as fuel, neutralizes it. Food is a necessity to live, and helping to prevent your child from having issues with that fuel is incredibly important.
Telling kids that you’re beautiful, teaching them body ownership, being okay with your own nude body… What are more ways we can help teach kids to be body-positive?
Comments on 3 ways to teach kids to be body-positive
This is great! I’m big on the food-as-fuel discourse, too. I don’t have kids, but I have a lot of family members who struggle both with food/eating issues and with body positivity (a tough combo.) I have a question about the whole moralizing food thing. I agree that talking about foods in a good/bad binary is both pernicious and silly. So how do you talk about healthy vs. unhealthy foods and/or quantities of food in a body-positive way? Thanks again for this thoughtful piece.
I feel that food can’t be healthy. We as humans can be healthy but food isn’t healthy, it’s nutritious. And all foods have some form of nutrition. Now just as with all things, our bodies need balance. Eating cookies all day will make your body sick, but so will eating spinach all day. Our bodies need variety and balance. I try to teach those values over categorizing foods into healthy or not.
I actually disagree with this point. Food is never just fuel. Food is so deeply tied to our culture, socialization, and in many ways, the way we treat food is part of what makes us human. Food is central to most of our rituals, celebrations, and social interactions. To try and reduce food to merely fuel would be next to impossible. Therefore, since food brings us together and brings us joy, it is often easy to over-do-it on those foods that we associate with happiness and good times (like birthday cake).
Food is not neutral so we do have to teach foods as “nutritious foods” vs. “occasional foods.” Cake is special because we eat it for a birthday and it does not help us grow or be healthy but it is a fun sometimes treat. Spinach is nutritious, helps our body, and we should eat it every day to get strong.
Right, but as I understand it the idea is not to think ‘I’ll be naughty and have cake…oh, that was bad of me’. Rather it should be more like ‘I’m celebrating so I’ll have cake…that was nice and I really enjoyed it.’ Sure, things like spinach should make up more of your diet but it doesn’t mean you’re *bad* for having cake or pizza every now and then. Modern society does have a tendency to treat food as a binary good/bad (sugar is now poison and we should completely quit it etc.) but that’s not a healthy way to look at it. That way orthorexia lies.
I agree with dragonzflame very much!
We are all emotional eaters. And in my book, there is nothing wrong with that. You’re correct that food is inherently tied to our cultures, our backgrounds and ourselves. The point I’m trying to get across is that by talking about food as fuel, you neutralize it from the bad vs. good dichotomy that is so prevalent in today’s Diet Obsessed society. By calling food what it is – fuel – you can discuss that some fuels are more needed by your body, and some less so. But eating a slice of birthday cake (or maybe two slices?) does not make you bad or weak, or hurt your body. It’s just a type of fuel. One that is slightly less efficient for your body than say, a spinach smoothie.
I try to practice this with my 5 year old. The only issue is when he says the word “fat” as even a neutral, loving descriptor, other people have clearly socially-emotionally-charged responses to it. So one lesson I am trying to impart in him is that it is no one’s right to comment on other people’s bodies, nor do they need to comment on his. This is more of an addition to the op’s article, as I try to neutralize the word “fat” while also discouraging any discourse around people’s bodies.
One thing I do to instill body positivity in my toddler daughter is teaching her self-care skills in a way that emphasizes health and love, rather than “fixing” things. So, for example, my kid sometimes decides that she doesn’t want to wipe after going potty. Instead of saying “You have to wipe because your bottom is gross,” I tell her, “Wiping after you potty keeps your vulva healthy.” When we put on sunscreen, I talk about how we love our skin and want to protect it. That kinda’ thing. And it goes beyond hygeine, it’s connected to how I talk about food choices, exercise… I’m always trying to give reasons that show respect and care for our bodies, rather than a desire to change them. The nice thing is, it’s not only helping my daughter love herself, but it’s also helped ME love my body a lot more, too.
Love this. I do something similar when talking to my son about makeup — it’s something people do to play with feeling fancy. Note lack of gender, and lack of “corrective” nature. It’s not something ladies do to look prettier — it’s something anyone can do if they want to do fancy play.
Exactly! I don’t do my makeup very often, but I do nail art, and I explain it the same way. It’s fun and it makes me feel fancy (and it is a way for me to care for myself, cuz it helped me quit biting my nails). Plus, my nephew loves having painted toes, so there’s boys who like it too.
I’d love to hear more about this and how it’s affected you. Do you struggle with how to explain things to her (and you) or is it usually easy? Do you talk about how “Mommy does X because she loves Y” or just about how she should do things? Is it the repetition that helps, or has something been an epiphany?
If there WAS an epiphany, it’s probably my daughter herself. She’s just so beautiful, and she looks a LOT like me (to the point that when I showed her a picture of me at 2 years old, she thought it was a photo of her). And that helps me know that I’m beautiful too. That’s not the only factor, of course. 20 years of feminism and learning about the body positivity movement helps too.
To answer your other question, most topics aren’t that hard right now, but that’s partially because this is something I thought a LOT about before she was born and partially because she’s only 2 1/2 and doesn’t ask many questions. There are things that will come up, but haven’t yet, that will be harder. She hasn’t gone clothes shopping with me yet, and I don’t know how I’ll handle that because shopping is hard and really exhausting for me (and literally every woman I know). I also have family members who live far away who do some serious body-shaming, and when we move closer to them that is going to be a big challenge.
But for now, this works! I took her to get some summer clothes last month and she looked in the mirror and yelled “I’M BIG AND BEAUTIFUL!!!!!” I call that success!
One of the best ways my mother taught me and my sisters about body positivity was by taking us to a pool where everyone changed in the open. The women’s change room was a classic locker room, with no changing stalls and a shower wall. I grew up seeing all kinds of body types (a whole lot of boobs, belly, bush, and butt) and it reinforced that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
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