I had a wonderful conversation with Cliona Byrne about body image this week. What were my take home messages when setting good examples for our kids?
First, body image is not about what you look like. It is about how you see yourself and how you perceive others see you. If your sense of body image is negative it can affect our mental health and makes us more prone to make decisions that are not always the best choices for our overall health. How you talk about yourself or others to your children, who are likely to inherit some of your physical traits, is very influential on how your children see themselves now or later in life.
How we talk about our bodies and those of other peoples can have a huge impact on our children. Sometimes what we say when we talk about our bodies or those of other people can seem innocuous to us but can sow seeds in the minds of our children about how they perceive themselves and can be quite powerful either positively or negatively. Also, something said to a son might have different connotations to a daughter.
A young man who has grown tall and lanky who feels like they lack broad shoulders and muscles may not agree that he is lucky that he stays so skinny. And how does curvy sister feel about that comment made by her curvy mother to her skinny brother? When she is finding it hard to accept her developing curves and wants her brother’s long skinny frame?
Young men are impacted by body image expectations more than we realise, there are powerful stereotypes and images depicting what a strong, healthy man should look like. It is also much harder for a young man to have a conversation about body image. It still is considered something that affects girls not boys.
Listening to how your child sees themselves is important. Maybe there is no need to contradict that or try to tell them otherwise. Rather allow that understanding inform how you talk about others and how you talk about them and yourself.
Complimenting and noticing different attributes is important. How someone holds themselves or how they smile, one person’s curves, another person’s strength and grace. Talents and successes that are not related to looks and image are so important. How much someone smiles, how generous they are or they show empathy, how resilient someone was or how hard they worked towards something important. These help to embed a wider sense of what is important in who we are how we see ourselves and how we talk about others.
There are strong messages that we can and should change how are body looks through diet and exercise. These messages can be particularly powerful to young people as their bodies change through adolescence. It can be a path to restrictions and rules, disordered eating and a poor relationship with food. It may result in poorer health both physical and mental. Especially if we are pursuing a goal that is not respecting the body that we have or where we are in life.
Acceptance and respect for this ‘with-us-for-life’ ally, our body, is a step towards treating it better. Demonstrating and teaching this is a gift you can give your children. Rather than always trying to change your body or using how it looks as some kind of marker of success, instead nurture it, nourish and listen to it. Treat it with kindness and care as you might your best friend or your children. Listen to its tiredness, listen to its hunger and satiety, feed it diverse and varied food, move it in ways that make it feel good – be outdoors, dance, run, cycle, garden, yoga either alone or with others – because after it feels better.
When people have a negative body image it is often connected to weight and shape (think muscle definition, curves or no curves). Weight and shape are tightly tied to how people visualise what healthy looks like. Often that perception of a healthy body shape or size is not flexible enough to encompass different bodies or that our body will look different as we go through life.
There is an implication that thinness equals health – that lucky person who can eat what they want and do no exercise and stay thin may not be very healthy. A thin person still needs to move and eat a balanced and nutritious diet to stay well. They still need to value and respect the body they have.
Accepting yourself however you are built and wherever you are in terms of health is important. That your body deserves to be nourished and cared for and moved regardless of being a bit bigger or a bit thinner or not as healthy or well as you want it to be.
Our weight has a role to play in health both when we are too heavy and too light. But health is multifactorial and weight is often a marker of other things that need to change. Simply messing around with calories and kilos on the scales will not instantly bring us better health and better lives. It has to be part of a balanced and whole package – this package needs to include body image and acceptance. We as adults must get our heads around that and set a good example.
To see our conversation, click here.