When you wear what feels good, you permit your child to do the same. Source: Shutterstock"I can't wear that dress. Look at my thighs!"
"I have to lose weight before Hanah's party."
"Looks like zero-carb diet is the only option I have."
"I'm so nervous about the interview. And I didn't even get my nails done. Ugh. I feel horrible."
Your kids are listening
It doesn't matter how much praise you shed on your kids. You could be telling them all the right things and doing a great job in clarifying that who they are is more important than what people think.
But if you don't extend the same kindness and acceptance to yourself, you might as well be body-shaming them and dragging their self-esteem down to the same level as yours. Harsh? Well, we are all guilty of this, even though we may not be conscious of how our body image affects our kids' self-esteem.
Children pick our values about our body, our sense of self-worth and confidence by how we treat ourselves and not what we verbally preach to them. So if you are telling your girlfriends that you will skip a white dress that makes you look fay for a black one or hide your arms in all your pics, your child, especially your daughter, is likely to believe she can only accept and own those parts of herself that are in line with social expectations of beauty.
What you say becomes thoughts in your head
While it's common knowledge that what you tell your kids plays a large role in determining their self-worth, a lesser known fact is that the words/adjectives you use most often are the exact words they will be relaying in their head for their entire life. Consider statements that a child is likely to hear from her/his parents/teachers/relatives/ neighbors:
Sally's not like her sister. Thank god she is witty, though!
You're pretty for a brown girl!
Sam, you cry more often than your sister. What does that make of you?
You sure need to work on your appearance if you want to go places.
Sally's going to be wondering what exactly she lacks when compared to her sister (not pretty enough, tall enough, charming enough, thin enough, smart enough?...Or maybe, just not enough.)
Sam will control his emotions and never express them, but he may earn a few divorces and broken heart along the way. You would never utter such words to you kid. But here's where we slip.
Mom to a friend: I can't wear that dress. Look at my thighs!
Mom on the phone: I have to lose weight before Hanah's party.
Mom's search history: Looks like zero-carb diet is the only option I have.
Mom to herself: I'm so nervous about the interview. And I didn't even get my nails done.
How do you think your kids might translate these in their head?
"I need to be the "perfect size/shape" to wear what I want. I can't feel good about myself or enjoy a good party until I look a certain way. Or more literally, I dare not wear short dresses, look at my thighs!"
And the seemingly harmless words might be laying the trap for eating disorders like anorexia and/or bulimia. Why? The belief the child picks from a calorie-obsessed mom or mom forever trying different diets is: "Food is my enemy. It's the reason I hate what I see in the mirror. I'd rather not eat than look like that."
You think these are extreme examples? Try talking to a 13-year-old and ask her what she thinks about her body. Her words might often reflect her mom's sentiments about herself. A fact well-captured by Dove's campaign/commercial: Legacy.
Self-esteem, confidence, and same-sex parents
Psychologists have begun to find patterns in how daughters take after moms and sons after their dads when it comes to self-perception, body image, and confidence. This doesn't mean you blindly take after their beliefs and values. Take your own example. You might differ from your parents greatly.
Yet, how happy your mom was or (dad, if you are a guy) about her- or himself and how content they were about their life determined the "permission" you had to be happy and content about yourself and your life.
If a mom is constantly unhappy with herself or obsessing over her body and appearance, the natural confidence of a child will get replaced with self-doubt, criticism, and unrealistic expectations. She might even feel guilty to feel good about herself when her mom feels miserable.
The parent of the opposite sex have their own set of influences and permissions, but when it comes to body image and self-acceptance, studies reveal same-sex parents lay the foundation unconsciously through modeling.
Your self-worth determines how they value themselves throughout their life
If you constantly beat yourself down, your child is likely to develop the same pattern of self-criticism and be more prone to anxiety, depression and unhappy relationships. This is one of the reasons children who've been exposed to abusive relationships between adults grow up to be victims (or perpetrators) of abuse.
One of the best parenting skill you can learn is to be kind to yourself, where you determine your self-worth through an innate understanding of who you are and not based on what media, celebs, magazines, ads, or others try to shove on you. In short, how you feel about yourself determines how your daughter feels about herself. A happy, confident, self-assured YOU is the best gift you can give your child.
Your relationship with food determines theirs
The US tops the chart of childhood obesity and every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder, including anorexia and bulimia. Clearly, one of the most developed countries seems to have an extremely unhealthy, love-hate relationship with food. The next time you go shopping with your children, watch out for signs you might be sending your kids. Do your eyes shift to the calorie chart as soon as you pick up a food item or do you mentally negotiate with yourself before you indulge in some wholesome food? Your kids are watching.
Never reduce the value of food to calories or worse, weight, size, shape. Food exists to provide nutrients and to keep your body running optimally. Developing a healthy and respectful relationship with food is like passing on a good gene to your child, especially your daughter, whose self-worth is constantly being questions or bull-dozed by the media and peers. No matter what the world claims, she will know her worth depends on who she is and not how she looks and that food is something that nourishes her, not a cause of misery.
Sons are vulnerable to poor body image, too
Recent studies reveal that male children are as vulnerable to negative body image, especially if their fathers have unrealistic expectations of themselves or of their sons. Bigorexia (muscle dysmorphia) is a common symptom seen in men, especially weight-lifters and bodybuilders. They believe they are much smaller in size than they actually are and spend hours working out in the gym.
It is almost like a reverse anorexia. A scary fact is that this is barely recognized as a disorder because it is socially acceptable for men to be muscular, putting them at a risk of steroid abuse. Young male children who are mocked for being skinny or chubby are likely to develop an unhealthy body image that equates their worth as a man with how muscular and "strong" they appear.
What can you do about it?
1. Become self-aware of your own values
Do you pay too much attention to how you look or what people think of your appearance? Do everyday choices seem to be determined or influenced by how you perceive your body to be? (What to wear to work, which way to stand or pose for pictures?) Do you let body weight, shape, size decide your meals, workout routines, lifestyle choices rather than letting health determine these?
2. Do not body-shame yourself in front of the mirror or elsewhere
This includes body-shaming yourself when you pick an outfit from the wardrobe, try out a new clothing item in a store, or discussing your insecurities with your friends. Never, ever, say "I am too fat for this" or "I'm too skinny to do justice to that dress" or "I so wish I had better curves" in front of your daughter. Better still, never tell them to yourself.
When a tough situation arises, pay as little focus on appearance or looks in front of your kids. Consider a mom who appears flustered and says, "I got an interview tomorrow and I haven't even done my nails. Ugh" It sure is a good idea to be well-groomed, but your kid might not realize that you put hours of research for the interview and assume she can never be fully prepared for something unless her nails are perfectly done.
3. Equate food with health, not with size or shape
When you pick groceries, when you place an order during a family dinner, when you indulge in some cookies or dessert, focus on a) the nutrition it provides and b) the joy it gives. My grandmom, a healthy, hearty, wise woman in her eighties says there are only two kinds of food: One that serves the body (See a) and the other that serves the soul (Refer back to b).
When you listen to your body and form a healthy relationship with food, you would neither binge nor starve yourself. A bit for your body and a bit for your soul is great advice. Do not count calories and do not do math standing on your weighing scale.
4. Opt for clothes that feel good
Don't get one size small so that you can wear it when you lose enough weight to reach that size. You wouldn't do that your child nor want her to do that to herself, right? If you feel like wearing a bright red or you inner neon goddess is asking to go for a brilliant blue or pink, don't wear black just for the sake of downplaying your tummy. Own yourself, with or without your flab, curves, edges, freckles and all.
5. Accept compliments graciously and give compliments
Do not rush to deny or deflect a compliment. Believe in the words and take them in. When real-life women celebrate one another, your daughter will learn that beauty comes in many forms and that it's healthy to appreciate others' beauty without being threatened by it.
6. Watch what you talk about celebs and friends
"God! I wish I looked like her!"
"It's so hard to look like that after you become a mom."
"If I were her size, I would experiment with more cuts and styles."
Your daughter is likely to set unrealistic standards for herself based on media portrayal and be less in touch with real women and real, bare-faced, botox-free beauty. She might put her health and life in the backseat as she strives to reach an ideal shape/size that's constantly out of reach.
Every time you put a celeb up on a pedestal for how they appear on a magazine or the big screen, you increase the gap between reality and myth. Save your daughter a lifetime of trouble by owning your own imperfections with grace and authenticity.
When you do own yourself completely, she will know that real women come with flab, not-so-perfect arms, freckles or wrinkles, stretch marks, small breasts, big breasts, big waists, small hips, or just about any shape or size and can still rock a dress or swimsuit unapologetically. And she will know that to make a mark and enjoy life to the fullest, she already has what she needs and nobody can make her believe otherwise.
Do not body-shame celebs and focus more on the talent and effort that went into them reaching the stardom they enjoy. Go easy on social media comments. An "LOL" to a comment that mocks an Instagram celeb says a lot about your standards of beauty.
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