As a young girl, I remember standing in the grocery store line looking at magazine covers with bodies plastered on the front, hoping I could look like that one day and as I got older, that comparison became more prevalent through the media I digested. There’s no doubt our culture is body centric, and while our children grow, they are consuming body standards one post, magazine cover, and video at a time.
In a recent study, the relationship between parental fat-talk and child disordered eating behaviors and weight were examined. Fat-talk includes criticisms around body image and weight, but also extends further into comments about weight, healthy eating vs. unhealthy eating, exercise, comparisons around appearance, and approaches to changing appearances. It is associated with body dissatisfaction, but manifests itself in a way for individuals to release shame surrounding their body. The findings were staggering; “76% of parents reported sometimes or often saying at least one fat-talk statement about themselves around their child, 51.5% of parents reported saying one fat-talk statement about obesity around their child, and 43.6% of parents reported saying one fat-talk statement about their child in front of them,” (Lydecker et al. 4).
This sounds surprising, and at first I was astounded by the large number of parents that reported saying a fat-talk statement about their child in front of them, but subconsciously we are all thinking about bodies and image and how society perceives people based upon how they look.
Growing up, I was a ballet dancer, and until I broke my foot around 13, resulting in the end of my dancing career, I was surrounded by a world focused on bodies. Although my studio put acceptance of all bodies at the forefront of their mission and focused on empowerment, outside those studio doors was a world full of comparison, and I fell into the rabbit hole of comparing myself to the bodies of others. I became obsessed with how I looked, and at a time when I was still growing, I would feel intense shame for gaining weight when it was completely normal and what I needed to do. By age 15, I had developed binge eating disorder, and found food as an outlet for numbing. I entered this cycle of wanting to numb or dull some emotion I was feeling, bingeing, and then feeling incredible amounts of shame.
Throughout my healing process, which still continues, I began to become acutely aware of behaviors around me that triggered my episodes. My parents, as many do, commented on what I was eating, my social media was flocked with edited photos of women in bikinis, while my peers would sometimes say comments about wanting to lose weight. This is something I have experienced my entire life, and I have been absorbing our world’s ideals around body image the whole time.
Talking to your kids about body image starts when they are born. Start showing them body diversity in the media they absorb whether it be books, art or other media. Reinforce that
bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and there is no such thing as perfect, as long as your body is perfect for you. When you encounter body shaming in a conversation, or in the media point it out and tell your child it isn’t okay. You, as the parent might be struggling with body related issues, but try not to shame yourself or others in front of your child, and if you’re on a diet, your child will pick up on that. Children are perceptive, so approach talking with them about the food you’re eating with sensitivity. Forget calories, instead focus on nourishment and feeling good. This transcends into exercise as well. Instead of saying that exercise is a tool to lose weight, try saying that it is fun, and exercise with the intention of having fun. Remember that nobody is perfect; you will make mistakes and that’s okay. The most important thing is to acknowledge those mistakes, and continue to live thoughtfully, with more emphasis on beauty being everywhere and not within a standard.
Sources: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.22858, Association of parents’ self, child, and other “fat talk” with child eating behaviors and weight by Janet Lydecker PhD, Kristen E. Riley, Carlos M. Grilo PhD
Olivia Bulis is a sophomore at Bozeman High School, Peer Educator with Bridgercare and HAVEN, activist, advocate, artist, actor, and believer in the power of empowering people to be authentically themselves.