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Fostering Positive Body Image Development: A Caregiver's Guide to Shielding Children from Diet Culture

Updated: May 8

Even though I am an eating disorder and body image therapist, I’m struck when I hear a young child talk about their body image-related concerns and how much they’ve internalized diet culture ideas. Even elementary-aged children are affected by diet culture, societal beauty standards, and weight bias. Diet culture’s emphasis on thinness, restrictive eating, and body shaming have profound impacts on children’s mental and physical health. Diet culture has permeated our society, making it impossible to avoid completely, and children’s access to technology and social media has increased its ability to reach our young ones, which is why this blog post contains some practical steps caregivers can take to protect their children from diet culture’s grasp. 


What is diet culture?


If you follow Beyond on social media (give us a Follow on Instagram here: @beyondtherapyandnutrition) or have read our blog posts before, you’re familiar with this term. Diet culture is a set of beliefs that promotes the idea that thinness equals health, beauty, and worth and creates a moral hierarchy of bodies by perpetuating health myths. It demonizes specific types of foods and creates a binary of “good” and “bad” foods and vilifies certain body types. Kids can be especially impacted by diet culture as their identities, self-esteem, confidence, and body image are still developing.


How can we protect children from diet culture?


 So, now you’re aware of diet culture and how it’s harmful to kids, but what can you do about it? Here are some steps to get you started with protecting your child (or any children in your life!) from diet culture:


1. Be mindful how you speak about your own body in front of your kids


Modeling a healthy relationship with your own body is a powerful way to encourage your children to develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies. Children are constantly learning and absorbing what’s in their environment, even when we think they aren’t listening. When kids watch their trusted adults checking their bodies in the mirror, they learn to do the same. When they hear you talk negatively about your body (and other bodies too), they learn that a body can be “wrong” and learn to pick out “flaws” in their own appearance. 


2.  Avoid talking about their appearance


How we speak to kids as they’re growing up becomes their inner voice. Even occasional, well-meaning comments on their appearance can increase the likelihood of them internalizing the importance of “flaws” in their looks. Similar to above, if others are pointing out parts of their body, especially ones they don’t have awareness of yet, they learn that bodies are a source of shame and that they can be picked on, ridiculed, or judged for their appearance. Even praising socially acceptable or “positive” traits about their appearance can cause them to internalize the idea that their worth is based on their looks and that they must maintain aspects of their appearance that are appealing to others. This can contribute to people-pleasing tendencies or the over-valuation of their looks in order to maintain relationships, social status, or worthiness. 


3. Celebrate diversity with your kids


By recognizing that bodies come in all shapes and sizes with different skin colors, hair colors, and other attributes and varying levels of abilities, we normalize differences to our kids and teach them to understand that differences are something to be appreciated and celebrated. With social media strongly favoring particular body types, typically thin (and white) bodies, it’s even more important to diversify the types of influences your children are exposed to. You can do this through books, movies, social media accounts, live performances, music, and many more activities that display a range of diversity. When children are exposed to diverse media and role models, narrow beauty standards are challenged, and seeing and accepting diverse bodies becomes their norm. Beyond’s dietitian, Niki Pillitteri, wrote a Blog featuring various body positive/diversity books for kiddos! Check it out here: Lessons I Learned From My Toddler: Book Review Edition.


4. Choose how you speak about food and movement in your household carefully


All foods (yes, all foods -- even those that come out of packages, from the drive-thru, or that contain sugar) have nutrients that support our bodies -- especially the growing bodies and minds of children. Try to foster a healthier relationship with food for the children in your life! The intuitive eating model can be helpful for this! If you want to talk about nutrients, talk about what a particular food provides for the body, such as “orange foods have vitamins that support our eyes,” or “these cookies give our bodies the energy they need to play and learn.” Children pick up on comments from adults about foods that are “good or bad” and messages about shameful food choices. Stressing about eating or not eating certain types of food is likely to cause more harm than good in their developing relationship with food. When a child feels empowered to make choices about what they want or don’t want to eat and has freedom to incorporate all foods into their diet, they learn helpful and lasting skills for fueling their body. 


Likewise, when we talk about movement, let’s steer away from talking about using exercise to control the way our body looks or to burn calories. Instead, we can teach kids that movement helps to keep our muscles and bones strong and helps our heart pump blood better. Encourage your children to try different types of movement and find what feels good for their bodies. You can also expand the way you and your family think about movement. Weeding in the garden or planting new flowers this spring? Walking the family dog? Playing hide and seek? Maybe wishful thinking, but doing chores around the house? All movement counts, and these types of movements are just as valid as doing sports or traditional exercise. When we teach kids to find ways to move their bodies that they enjoy, they’re more likely to develop a healthier and more joyful relationship with movement. It is also important to remember to talk about movement as optional and something we do to make us feel good -- but always optional!


5. Teach them their value & worth doesn’t depend on what their body looks like


All of the above points can support this goal! Furthermore, having conversations with them from a young age about their inherent worthiness as a human being is important, and it’s never too late to start! Point out their positive qualities as a person, such as being a kind friend or good listener, or engage with them over their hobbies and interests. Helping them to develop a sense of identity and confidence in their abilities that is not appearance-related can help to buffer their self-esteem. Remember, their worth is still not based on having any talents or abilities, and it’s important that they know they’re worthy just because they are! 


If you hear your child talking negatively about themselves, be curious and empathetic. Ask them where they learned these messages and explore their feelings with them. They’re not wrong for having these feelings -- let them know it’s normal! If you’re unsure of how to proceed with them, seek professional help. If you’re reading this blog post and you’re worried that you haven’t done any of these steps in the past, you can start at any point!


6. Encourage media literacy


Monitoring your child’s exposure to diet culture through different media outlets can be an important part of protecting them from diet culture’s effects. Furthermore, as your children get older, you can also teach them media literacy skills. This includes learning to analyze media’s messaging about beauty and health, recognizing that images are often manipulated, seeing how unrealistic beauty standards contribute to feelings of inadequacy, having discussions about content and representation in shows, movies, social media posts, etc., and examining who benefits from shameful messages in the media. You won’t be able to monitor or regulate all of their media consumption (as much as we’d like to!), especially as they get older, so giving them the tools to be media literate can mitigate the effects diet culture in the media has on them. 


7. Be your child’s advocate


In our diet culture-infused society that is full of misinformation, your child needs you to be their advocate. Of course, most parents are already prepared to advocate for their child’s needs, but this extends to protecting them from diet culture and weight bias as well. Examples of some times when you might need to advocate for your child are: 


1. Declining their participation in school nurse height, weight, and BMI checks

2. Opting them out of inadequate or inappropriate “nutrition lessons” at school

3. Opting them out of “fitness testing” in gym class

4. Advocating for body-positive curriculum and policies for their schools/classrooms

4. Asking their pediatrician and other health care professionals to take a blind weight and not to discuss their weight in front of them (and, if necessary, asking for treatment options that don’t include weight loss)

5. This one can be a doozy but is important:  drawing boundaries with other family members around mentions of weight, comments on appearance, and discussions about bodies, food, and movement that perpetuate shame and stigma


These guidelines are certainly not all-encompassing but can be a starting point to supporting your child’s wellbeing and protecting them from the harmful effects of diet culture. Although it’s a tough feat, it is possible to set up kids with the tools to fight back against diet culture and lessen the impact to their body image and sense of worth. If you or your child are struggling with body image or your relationship with food or movement, seek professional help. It’s never too late or too early to develop a strong relationship with your body.

Kiera Rasmussen is an eating disorder therapist near me in Newtown, PA and is a certified intuitive eating specialst

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Eating Disorder Therapist

Beyond Therapy & Nutrition Center

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