WORDS: Nutritionist, Lucy Budzynski
Parents today are heavily invested in the well-being of their children and one of the ways this plays out is our want to raise our children with a healthy sense of body, whilst also encouraging healthy eating habits. This is a tough job when we think about how our own childhood’s influence our values and behaviours, and to make it harder, we live in a contradicting environment; on the one hand, we have messages about well-being and raising active and healthy eaters and on the other hand we have an abundance of high fat and high sugar foods available that are actively marketed to children, whilst also living with media and advertising that are still pushing unrealistic messages about our bodies.
A healthy sense of body is particularly challenging for our children’s generation with an abundance of content easily available from social media, video games, movies to TV shows, most with either overt or covert messages about ideal faces and bodies. And they are living in a world of constant consumption – children spend on average 3-4 hours a day in front of a screen, let alone their exposure to other forms of advertising out and about. This is especially concerning when we know that the faces and bodies we see have been altered in more than one way. I do believe we are making strides with the representation of different sized bodies in the media today, but we are still being fed an ideal body type that may not be what the majority of us have when we are eating to fulfil our hunger, energy and nutrient needs.
Elicia Vitucci, Social Worker at Williamstown Family and Personal Counseling, explains to me,
‘healthy body image’ feels to me like an outdated concept. I like to refer to my body image as my own sense of body. For me, taking the word ‘image’ away takes away the objectification of my body as an ‘image’ to be consumed by those around me. My sense of my body is for me, not anyone else, and working on that is an act of respect for myself and my physical body.
This idea that our sense of body is for ourselves and not others reminds me of Lucia Osborne-Crowley in her second book My Body Keeps Your Secrets. Lucia says on her perfectionism and obsession with thinness “my perfectionism comes from a desperate attempt to prove that I am worth something. To fight the little voice in my head that says over and over: You are a filthy rotten thing.” For me, this is a reminder to teach our children that their self-worth is intrinsic, and it is definitely not dependent on how their body looks or what food they eat or don’t eat. We need to be reminding our children that they are worthy and that they are loved exactly how they show up in the world, there is no editing needed. Our children’s bodies are theirs and what is important is how it feels to them, not how it looks to others. This starts with teaching our children anatomically correct body parts, teaching emotions and how they feel in the body, and letting children feel hunger and thirst and respond to those appropriately. It’s about trusting our children to know what feels good and what doesn’t, and then giving them space to honour these body cues.
A way we can help our children with their sense of body is to lead by example and if you’re still working on your own sense of body, that’s ok. Elicia stresses
“if you believe that you have a poor sense of self, it’s important that you don’t think that in order to be a good parent you need to ‘heal’ or ‘fix’ yourself.”
She explains, “it’s about understanding that our behaviours as parents provide a template for our kids. Talking poorly about yourself in the mirror, will cause your children to do the same. It’s about catching the small behaviours like calling yourself ‘bad’ for eating a ‘bad’ snack, and outwardly correcting that ‘oops, I’m not bad, a little cake can’t make someone bad can it!’. The reframe will stick with our kids and show them to have some grace with their own thoughts and behaviours.” Elicia reflects on her internalised messages from her childhood “since growing into adulthood and developing this low body image … I have realised the damage these inherited behaviours now have on my own children.” Another way we can lead by example she says about her own-self talk, “which can look like asking my partner if I ‘look fat’ in an outfit, as opposed to maybe saying something less body-specific like ‘I am feeling anxious about this activity that I am about to go to’. Understanding this behaviour helps to motivate small but consistent changes.”
Our sense of body is linked to food and what we choose to eat and not eat, and how we talk and think about food. This is especially important for our young children, like Elicia said our behaviour is a template for our children. Food issues are common in young families, so as a nutritionist I stress the importance of trying to be neutral with food with our children. There is no good or bad food, because food doesn’t have a morality.
Some simple ways of helping children develop healthy eating habits are:
- Get them involved – meal planning, shopping, prepping or cooking food are all ways to get them involved in food
- Offer food, don’t force them to eat it – it is our job as parents to offer what they eat and when, and it’s their job to eat what they want from that offering.
- Keep comments at meal times either not about food at all or about food in a neutral and informative way “these green cucumbers are crunchy” or “mmm, this cake is sweet and yummy”
- Be deliberate with meal times – slow down, allow it to be a space to talk about everyone’s day and use the time to foster connection as a family.
The world can be a tough place to navigate for our children, so trying to encourage a healthy sense of body is ultimately the gift of a safe space in the world.
Our children are worthy no matter what they look like, our behaviour matters and is a template for our children, and we can set our families meal times and relationship with food to be a positive place to develop healthy eating habits.