"I could not believe what I did to my 20-year-old daughter the other day. We're standing in the dressing room, and she had on a dress that looked positively stunning on her. Just beautiful. And I said so. But then, unbelievably, I placed my hand on her stomach and pushed in slightly. The saleslady gasped. My daughter gave me a withering look, and I felt like garbage. I couldn't tolerate the sixteenth of an inch her stomach was sticking out? It was, I realized, a habit. I've been doing that to myself my whole life."
— From Just a Little Too Thin (Da Capo Press, 2005)
Believe it or not, there are people in this world with healthy body images, people who appreciate the beauty of their own bodies. They appreciate not just the external beauty, which may or may not conform to society's accepted standards of attractiveness, but the internal and functional beauty as well.
These are the only people, we assume, who will manage to raise well-adjusted children with healthy body images of their own. Not necessarily. According to Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke University Eating Disorder Program, "A parent's body image never solely determines their child's body image. Life is not that simple. Many factors influence a child's body image."
You can help your child love her body.
That's good news for parents with less-than-perfect feelings about their less-than-perfect bodies. With thoughtful and conscious effort, even parents with body and esteem challenges of their own can nurture positive self-image in their children.
Tina Lepage, a clinical psychologist and founder of Lepage Associates in Chapel Hill, encourages parents not to minimize their role in the development of their children's healthy body image. "Parents have a lot of control over how children and adolescents feel about everything, their bodies included," she says. "For example, studies have found that the messages that parents give to their child have more influence on the child's thoughts and behaviors than messages they get from peers."
You don't have to be a supermodel to be a role model.
It isn't about what you look like; it's about how you feel and how you communicate that feeling to your children, Lepage says. "Children identify closely with the same-sex parent in terms of their vision of what it means to be a man/boy or woman/girl. Since girls are more vulnerable to body image issues (due to societal pressures) and girls take their primary cues from their mom's attitude about body image, it is especially important for moms to reflect in their words and actions a healthy attitude about their bodies," she says. "Conversely, if mom and dad have a positive and healthy body image, the child is more likely to feel good about his or her own body, even in the face of cultural and media images that hold up unrealistic and sometimes even unhealthy body images."
It's a self-fulfilling cycle, Zucker says. "When we are comfortable with ourselves, we exude an inner confidence that colors how others perceive us – and makes us more attractive. Confident individuals have a magnetism and attractiveness that cannot be denied, irrespective of their physical shell."
That's sometimes hard for kids – and adults – to believe, so it's important for parents to reinforce the concept with frequent messages about the value of "inner beauty." Lepage encourages parents to stress the value of character, personality and accomplishments over external looks. For example, she says, parents can compliment children on character behaviors and accomplishments, such as helping a friend, doing chores, learning to ride a bike or doing well in school.
Minimize harmful cultural images and stereotypes.
There's no question that popular culture places an unhealthy emphasis on beauty and holds adolescents to impossible standards of attractiveness. Parents can – and should – help counteract those images and ideals with real-life examples that celebrate individualism and self-worth.
"Parents can make a crucial and positive contribution to how their children feel about their body image irrespective of the toxic influences in the environment," Zucker says. "First, parents control the home environment in several ways. They can role model personal comfort with their own image. They control the types of media they allow to enter the home, and they control the degree to which they give their children tools to be critical media consumers."
Amy Olson, a counselor in Cary who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, urges parents to take an inventory in their homes to look for things that may contribute to negative body image. "Kids get bombarded with negative messages about their bodies outside the home," she says, "so it's essential to make home a safe place. Get rid of fashion magazines, diet books, items focused on reversing the aging process and anything else that reinforces unrealistic expectations."
Limiting access to harmful images is part of the solution, but it's just as important for parents to talk with their children about what they do see. "Give them information that allows them to distinguish art and media fabrication from reality," Zucker says.
Similarly, Olson encourages parents to demystify celebrity beauty whenever possible. "Parents can collect and share information about the retouching processes involved in the images they see," she says. "In my experience, 10- to 14-year-olds are very positively impacted by the straight facts about computer editing."