by Jocelyn Lebow
It’s alarming. And it happens all the time.
I’ll be sitting there with one of my teenage patients and their parents when talk will turn to thoughts about their body. Typically it will focus on a laundry list of highly specific flaws the teenager sees in their weight or shape. I’m a psychologist who works mostly with children and teenagers with eating disorders, so this is familiar territory for me. (This isn’t the alarming part.)
Hearing their kid put him- or herself down is often exceptionally hard for parents to tolerate. Parents are usually lightning-fast to jump in and tell their kid they’re beautiful, perfect, their body is just right. (This isn’t what alarms me either.)
The alarming part comes when these same wonderfully supportive parents let loose with some self-directed fat talk. This happens a lot. Sometimes it even happens in the same moment they’re vehemently defending their child’s weight or shape: “Are you kidding? I would kill for your booty- look at my old lady flab.” “No food is outlawed in our home, [pats stomach] which is why I’ve gained a nice little belly here.” The comments are almost always well-intended. Often they’re funny- part of a well-rehearsed self-deprecating schtick. They’re also weight stigma.
Just because it’s self-directed doesn’t mean it’s not weight stigma.
It’s like a blind spot. Parents who would fight like tigers if they heard one syllable of fat talk directed at their child will effortlessly attack their own weight or shape, without any acknowledgement that their child is listening.
And this is really, really bad for kids. Because what they’re doing is telling them to do one thing and showing them how to do the opposite. Data support the fact that children and teenagers learn most of their social skills from modeling- in other words, they pick up and internalize the rules of conduct they see enacted around them.
We know weight stigma, fat talk, and body dissatisfaction are bad for our kids. We know that an unhealthy body image is directly related to BOTH eating disorders and obesity. But what is sometimes forgotten is that kids learn these behaviors and thought patterns by watching the adults in their lives. The more kids hear expressions of weight stigma, the more this becomes normalized. The more they hear these things coming from adults who they look up to, the more they learn that this is part of what you do when you’re grownup.
This type of modeling is not unique to parents of kids with eating disorders. On the contrary, it’s something that pervades most households, in most families. Just because not every child who hears this talk goes on to develop an eating disorder doesn’t mean this isn’t harmful- both individually and with regards to our general societal attitudes towards weight and shape.
The best way to teach kids healthy body image is to practice what you preach
I guess what I’m saying is that- if I may shamelessly abuse the quote- we need to be the change we wish to see in our kids. The whole ‘do as I say, not as I do’ thing doesn’t work. The first step has to be a little introspection. Look honestly at your thoughts about bodies in general, and yours in particular. What foibles, prejudices and biases are you carrying?
Next, it’s time to shift the narrative at home:
- Instead of talking about your weight or shape, work on shifting the focus to what your body can do (“I’ve got these strong legs so I am pretty much owning my dance class.”).
- Better yet, focus the conversation on qualities you value about your child and others outside of body shape, attractiveness, or achievement (“I admire how you’re so loyal to your friends”).
- Watch out for when you make negative comparisons to others or hold yourself up to unrealistic standards. Instead focus on the positives of your specific body (“This type of dress always looks good with my curves.”)
- Demonstrate acceptance of different body types. Be particularly careful of sending messages that being thin is the only way to be healthy. Data support the fact that weight and shape are NOT good indicators of health. (“I LOVE how these Olympic athletes all have really different types of bodies.”)
- Fight back against media portrayals of the thin ideal. Question whether what you’re seeing is realistic, healthy, or even something worth shooting for (“Oh man- this is DEFINITELY photoshopped…if this person truly had legs that skinny they wouldn’t be able to walk, much less run down the beach with this attractive male model…”)
As a parent or caregiver you can have a major role in reducing the effect of weight stigma on your child’s life. Even small shifts in how you talk about weight and shape can have a big impact. Because let’s face it. Your kids are always listening. Even when they choose to disregard, disavow, or directly disobey, they’re paying attention. Think carefully about what you want them to see in you, and how you want them to see themselves.
Jocelyn Lebow Ph.D., L.P. is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of adolescent eating disorders. She currently works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Jocelyn is certified in Family Based Treatment (the Maudsley approach), and has an active research program, focusing on early identification and prevention of adolescent eating disorders.
BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change. The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.