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‘I Wish I Was Skinny': How Speak To Children About Body Image And Weight


By Victoria Richards, HuffPost UK 

I’m standing in front of my daughter holding her puffer jacket in front of her. She scowls and shakes her head, arms crossed: “I’m not wearing it,” she says, gritting her teeth. “It makes me look all fat and puffy.” I don’t know what to say to her. All I can think is: “You’re six! Is this when it starts?”

Words whizz through my head like wildfire: anorexia, body image, gender stereotypes. I think about those shocking statistics that showed children as young as four and five attended clinics for eating disorders.

The focus on how we look begins when we are babies, with strangers on the street cooing over “pretty” girls or “handsome” boys. My little girl was just 18 months old when she sat on my lap, picked up a make-up brush, clumsily swiped it at her cheeks and said, “pretty”. Aged three, in the middle of a tantrum over clothes, she shouted: “If I don’t wear a dress, I’m not beautiful!”

And then the refusal to wear this particular coat, because it makes her look fat?! She barely weighs three stone.

The sad thing is, I’m far from alone in experiencing this as a parent. A 2016 Journal of Paediatrics study of children aged nine to 14 found more than half were dissatisfied with their body shape. When asked to select a picture representing the shape they wanted to be, half of the girls wanted to be thinner, while the boys were split: 21% wanted to be bigger and 36% to be thinner.

And according to Girl Scouts, 80% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, surrounded as they are by both subtle and direct messages that “curvier or heavier girls aren’t as well liked”.

One mother tells me she had serious concerns for her 10-year-old daughter’s happiness. “It started with her realizing she had a different body shape to her big sister,” she says. “She said things like, ‘why don’t clothes look like that on me?’ It’s a difficult thing to address, because her observations were spot on – they are different, as are we all. But she talks constantly about people calling her fat and ugly at school.”

And it’s not just young girls: one parent says her son, who is six, was told he had “a fat bum” by a child in his class, while a mother of a seven-year-old boy says: “My son is worried about not having a six pack as one of his friends brags he has one.”

How can we address the issue of body image with our children sensitively – specifically when they mention their own weight? Dr Helen McCarthy, a clinical psychologist also known as The Appetite Doctor, said how you talk about the word ‘fat’ is linked to how you talk to your child about any term that could offend the person you’re talking about. “Like, saying someone has big ears,” she explains. “By the age of 10, children understand there are things that they need not to say because it would hurt others.”

One tip, Dr McCarthy explains, is to think about how you would talk to your child about a less emotionally-charged issue, if “fat” is a loaded term for you or them. Then translate this back into how you can talk to them about “fat”.

Parents should also be aware of how they discuss weight. “What will influence your child is the way you and other adult family members talk to each other about food,” she says. “Remember who’s listening when you’re talking amongst yourselves. Rather than talking negatively about your own weight, or sharing diet-failure angst with close friends when the kids are around, compliment each other.” This includes agreeing to drop words like “naughty” when you talk about cake and “good” when you talk about kale.

“Those day-in-day-out messages are the drip-feed which shapes your child’s representations of the world,” she added.

Dr McCarthy’s advice on dealing with conversations around body image:


1) Role modelling

If your child is hanging around with someone saying hurtful things, it might be helpful to find out if they look up to that child. You could have a discussion about this as an issue in life – that we don’t always agree with what others say or think, and that is fine. Even when that other person seems older, wiser, or more popular than we are.


2) Discussion is important

Create space to talk about body image. Your child will love being included when their point of view is listened to respectfully, questioned or agreed with. Don’t panic if your child holds a view you don’t agree with – you can say you don’t agree and why. You can also talk about it when it comes up again.


3) Actions speak louder than words

Most of all, enjoy the blessing of eating and enjoying food together. That’s enough.

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Bloom Magazine: ‘I Wish I Was Skinny': How Speak To Children About Body Image And Weight
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