Teaching Children About Positive Body Image

While society has made strides over the last decade in promoting a positive body image movement and embracing bodies of all shapes and sizes (thanks to an uprising of women and men of all sizes, status, and racial backgrounds taking the internet by storm), it’s no secret that social media platforms—particularly Instagram—have a strong impact on how young people view themselves, and can even be damaging to their self-esteem.

For every message encouraging young girls to love themselves the way they are, there are just as many (if not more) social media “influencers” only displaying the perfectly filtered picturesque moments of their lives. Rather than posting goofy selfies of their friends on the school bus, young girls feel the pressure now more than ever to have the trendiest clothes, perfect hair, and the coolest captions to post alongside their photos. Making matters worse, their “success” or “approval” by their peers is literally being measured in likes. If one photo got less likes than the one before, they feel it must not have looked good enough—time to delete it! Even if you choose to restrict your child’s access to social media, the influence it has on their peers at school and the more traditional means of media (TV, movies, and magazines) can still impact your child’s perception of themselves and how they should or shouldn’t look.

The pressure from social media is just one factor in the battle to restore young women’s body image, and tweens and teens are not the youngest age group feeling the pressure to look perfect at all times. For many children, patterns of low self-esteem begin years before their first social media account is created. A 2015 research brief on children and teenage body image issues found that more than half of girls and one-third of boys between ages 6 and 8 think an “ideal” body is thinner than their current body and that 1 in 4 children have gone on some type of diet by the time they are just 7 years old. Some resources suggest that even children as young as 3 years old have already begun developing self-esteem issues.

We know that this type of behavior at a young age can lead to low self-esteem and even eating disorders from early on, but how can we nip this issue in the bud when these can sometimes feel like difficult topics to broach with young kids? Thankfully, there are many steps that can be taken to instill healthy habits and self-esteem in children—even those as young as toddlers! Below are our top 5 tips for promoting body positivity in young kids.

5 Ways to Boost Self-Esteem and Instill Healthy Habits

1. Combat diet culture by teaching healthy eating habits

Rather than using food as a punishment or a reward (eg, withholding a snack if your child’s room isn’t clean, taking them out for ice cream to celebrate good grades, or forcing them to finish their dinner before they move onto dessert), it is better to encourage eating a variety of foods in moderation. When we associate sugary or fatty foods with a reward or punishment, children can begin to put more value on those foods and feel less inclined to eat healthier options. Instead, cooking together and enjoying treats in moderation, while reinforcing good behavior with activity-based rewards, can lead to healthier relationships with food.

2. Be aware of what your kids are watching and looking at online

From the friends your tweens connect with on Snapchat, to the YouTube videos your toddler is watching on your phone as you attempt to keep them entertained, to every kids television show in between, it’s important to monitor—and yes, set limits on—your child’s entertainment consumption. These are the forums where young girls tend to be oversexualized, where off-color jokes about a person’s weight are told, and where many kids’ ideas about how they should look and act are born. Watch shows with your young children and be prepared to talk to them about any body-image or self-esteem conversations that come up, and encourage time away from their screens as much as possible to help curb the influencer overload. 

3. Talk positively about your own body

It doesn’t require much research to know that healthy habits start at home. Children mimic what they see, and if they are surrounded by constant discussions about dieting, fitting into clothes, losing weight by a certain date, etc., this will become the norm to them and they’ll start to mimic these behaviors—particularly in the standards they set for their own bodies. Likewise, it is important to be mindful of the comments you make towards other peoples’ appearances, even if your intention is to make an innocent joke that the other party understands. Kids cannot always pick up on these cues and may misinterpret something said in jest as your true feelings towards people of different shapes and sizes.

4. Encourage physical activities and participation in team sports

This may not seem all too difficult on the surface, but oftentimes subtle feedback from parents can have a negative impact on a child’s body image or their attitude toward exercise. Examples of discouraging comments may include telling a child that he/she is too short for the basketball team, telling a young girl that she doesn’t have the right body type for the cheerleading squad’s uniforms, or deterring a young boy from taking dance classes. Not allowing children to participate in the activities they are interested in can lead them to abandon the idea of team sports or physical activities altogether, while in contrast, belonging to a team sport can provide the opportunity for positive reinforcement from peers along with the added benefit of physical exercise.  

5. Promote uniqueness

This can apply to anything in a child’s life, from the music they listen to, to the way they dress, to how they wear their hair. Whether your daughter wants to wear a dainty dress on the daily or has a spunky spirit and loves a good pattern, allowing her to express herself from a young age will encourage her to be proud of who she is and set the foundation for a positive body image throughout the tougher teen and tween years.

How do you teach your children about positive body image, self-esteem, and other healthy values? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Kerry Hanisch

By day, Kerry is a communications professional in Northern New Jersey, working with pharmaceutical companies to create engaging content for physicians. By night, she is a writer, wife, dog mom, auntie to many nephews and cousins, weekly Zumba enthusiast, and frequent watcher of The Office.

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