Published on 06/17/10

Creating a positive body image in children and teens

By Constance C. Crawley

Children and teens are always looking for role models. Fashion magazines, athletes, movie stars, popular kids at school and even you are influencing the standards they set for their appearance and behavior.

American culture can sometimes send the message that how a person looks is how a person is valued. With this message, many feel their body is the enemy and they must fix it, dress it up, deprive it and try to improve it. In the extreme, these negative attitudes can lead to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

While it‘s fashionable to blame the media for these self-defeating attitudes, parents often contribute as well. When was the last time you said something positive or negative about your own body? Have you said something negative a lot more recently than you said something positive?

Similarly, when was the last time you said something positive about your son or daughter’s body? It doesn’t have to be related to appearance. Instead you could say, “I’m really impressed that you are strong enough to carry in those groceries” or, “you seem to be getting better hand-eye coordination when you play basketball.” The goal is to appreciate the function of the body over its appearance.

People tend to think criticizing their bodies will shame them into a dramatic change in eating or exercise habits. While many people could be more fit, rarely does bad-mouthing result in a beauty queen figure or an elite athlete body. In fact, if we feel bad about ourselves, we usually just sit more on the couch and eat larger amounts of comfort food to escape our unhappy thoughts.

To begin to change your family’s body image, start with yourself. Focus on what your body does well, not where it is deficient. Instead of always saying bad things about your body, make positive statements such as, “my body feels great after taking a walk” or “my skin looks so much better when I get enough sleep.” Don’t feel uncomfortable doing this. You are not bragging, just stating a fact.

Many people suffer from negative self-centeredness. In reality, no one pays much attention to anyone else for more than a few seconds. Can you remember what your friend, spouse or children were wearing today? Often, we think people are much more interested in us than they really are.

Don’t let body shape prevent you or your family members from participating in fun physical activities because you think you look bad in a swimsuit, sports uniform or exercise outfit. You’ll never look better if you sit at home worrying about how you look.

Connie Crawley is a nutrition and health specialist with University of Georgia Extension.

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