Positive Body Image & Your Child

You Are The Key

Negative Body Image occurs when individuals develop negative feelings about their body. These feelings impact on their general wellbeing to the extent that they can become a contributing factor in the development of serious psychological and physical concerns, including eating disorders, depression and anxiety disorders, self-harm and social isolation. Positive body image is what we aim for in our children, but sometimes with media everywhere, giving unrealisting ideals of how we should look, it can be a minefield navigating how to keep your child happy with themselves and with how they look.

Your children model your behavior. You are the most influential role model in your child’s life. You, your partner, your other children, your friends and your extended family have a massive influence on your child and how they learn about themselves and their place in the world.

Everything that you say in front of your child about your own body and other people’s bodies is absorbed by your child’s mind and is remembered for a very long time.

Concern about how their body looks is now the biggest worry for the nation’s 11- to 24-year-olds, male and female, according to the National Survey of Young Australians. In 2006, body image was the third biggest issue, behind family conflict and worries over alcohol and drugs.

The number of young people regularly taking laxatives, making themselves sick or undergoing extreme fasting jumped from 4.7% in 1995 to 11% in 2005. A recent report found one in five 12-year-old girls regularly used fasting and vomiting to lose weight.

68% of 15-year-old girls are dieting at any one time and that young people think magazines and the fashion industry promote negative body images. We as parents of our young children must instil a sense of worth and an awareness of reality right now, because by age 9 it may be a lot harder, if not, too late.

One in four Australian girls wants to get plastic surgery. A recent Dolly magazine survey of 4000 girls aged 11-18 found 27% would have cosmetic surgery if they could, and 2% had. Surgeons say the trend is most prevalent in Sydney and South-East Queensland.

How can you help your child?

Lead by example. Don’t crash or fad diet. Don’t encourage your child to crash or fad diet either. Studies show that many young people think that crash dieting is a harmless and effective way to lose weight. Talk to your child about the dangers of crash dieting.

Accept other people’s body sizes and shapes. Don’t put a lot of emphasis on physical appearances or your child will too. Instead, try to talk to your child about all the different aspects that make up a person, such as personality, skills and outlook on life. Give your child opportunities to appreciate their body for what it can do, rather than what it looks like.

Genuinely appreciate your child’s abilities without ‘over-praising’. Instill in your child a sense of self-worth, driven by their OWN happiness for what they do and achieve in everyday life. Of course it is always great to thank your child for doing something that’s helpful but too much “good girl” isn’t always good for the girl.

Be critical of media messages and images that promote thinness. Encourage your child to question and challenge Western society’s narrow ‘beauty ideal’.

Be mindful of ‘off handed’ comments that you make or that others make in front of your children. You can also explain to your child afterwards that what was said is unrealistic and dangerous.

For example – As a child I heard my mum complain regularly about a part of her body she wished was different. When I hit puberty it was clear – that part of my body was under much heavier scrutiny from myself than the rest of my body. Would my concerns been any better had my mum displayed acceptance about that body part of her own? I have no doubt.

If you are concerned about your child

If you are worried that your child has a poor body image, there is a number of ways that you can give your child a sense of self-worth and a positive body image.

- Reiterate the points made above, and be consistent.

- Diet and exercise should be a lifestyle choice and driven by a desire to have a healthy body and mind, not by the desire to look a certain way. Children learn eating behaviours from their parents, so make sure you include plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, good fats, lean meats or proteins. Go easy on empty carbs, fried and sugary foods and saturated fats.

- Have at least one family activity per week that involves some kind of exercise; for example, bushwalking, dancing, playing backyard cricket, going for a walk or swimming. Make the activity about “fun” rather than maintaining or losing weight.

- Accept your own body size and shape. Don’t complain about ‘ugly’ body parts or, at least, don’t share your opinions with your child. If you cannot accept your own body size or shape, show your child that you are committed to a healthy lifestyle in order to improve your health and weight. Display a positive body image for yourself, and even if you don’t, it may start happening!

- Speak with your doctor, your principal, your local health centre, an accredited practising dietician or arrange counselling for your child with a counsellor or psychologist.


Jasmine Lang – Mother of 4. Part time worker, part time happy home maker.

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