Most people in our thin-obsessed, fitness-crazed culture are battling with their bodies. For some it's an occasional pastime, for others it's a full-time job. It used to be mainly adults and teens who were struck by what I call the "I Feel Fat" Spell. But these days, even young kids are hating their precious bodies.
We are all surrounded by unrealistic, perfectionistic messages about how we should look. And while we may not be able to shield our kids from all the diet talk, fat chat and photoshopped images that surround us, we can certainly clean up what happens in our homes. If your child is struggling with body image issues, here are some tips for you:
How to Help Your Child Break the "I Feel Fat" Spell
Stop Fat Chat. Refrain from talking about how "fat" you feel or how "good" or "bad" you are according to how much you ate or exercised. Stop commenting on or criticizing your own or other peoples' bodies. We can tell our kids all day long that all bodies are beautiful and that all food groups are essential, but if we are trash talking our own bodies or certain foods, these are the messages our children will soak up.
Stop telling and laughing at fat jokes. Laughing at the expense of someone's size shames people who are large and scares people who are not. If everyone stops laughing at fat jokes, people will stop telling them.
Ban Body Bias. People are either genetically predisposed to look the way they do, or they have medical factors that contribute to their size, or their size is a sign of emotional pain and unmet needs. No matter the case, we all need compassion and kindness, not criticism and judgment. When you see someone who is larger, smaller or simply different than the cultural ideal, refrain from making judgments in front of your child (or better yet, at all!).
Love The One You're With. Help your child to foster love for themselves when they look in the mirror. One of the best ways to do this is to role-model it. This means making positive comments when you look at yourself, or at least, remaining neutral and non-judgmental. Teach your child that weight fluctuations are normal and healthy and that we all have a natural weight range, just like we have a natural eye color and a natural height.
Avoid Strict Restrictions. Strict dieting is a set up for obsession and rebellion. It leads many people to bounce back and forth between the prison of restriction and the rioting of supersizing. If you eat a wide variety of foods, in moderation, and honor your physical hunger and fullness cues, your kids will be more likely to do the same.
Manage Media. Refuse to buy magazines that feature emaciated, unrealistic-looking models. Let's all stop reading articles, and buying from companies, that teach and preach extreme and unhealthy ideas about food, fitness and physiques. And while you're at it, how about writing to the editors and letting them know that you are signing off until they make a change? Screen the programs, websites and magazines your kids are looking at and treat dieting, extreme fitness and pro-anorexia sites the same way you would porn sites.
Dealing With Feeling. It's essential to teach your child that there are no good or bad feelings. Many of us are taught that happy is good, and sad, mad and scared are bad. Though some feelings are certainly more pleasant than others, they are all natural and necessary. When people stuff their emotions down, they end up using unhealthy coping strategies to manage their distress. Dieting, overeating and body obsession are among the most common means of distracting and coping; depression and anxiety are the most common results. Teach your child that emotions are healthy, and are not to be "stuffed" or "starved" away.
Early Prevention. If your child starts hating their body, dieting, overeating or engaging in fear-based exercise, take action in the same way you would if they started using drugs. The earlier you catch and treat body image disturbances and disordered eating, the lower the chances are of them blooming into full-blown eating disorders.
Food For Thought. Even if you have a healthy and peaceful relationship with food and your body, it's entirely possible that your child can still catch the "I Feel Fat" Spell from someone or someplace else. After all, we live in culture that is obsessed with thinness, fitness and perfection.
If it so happens that you, too, have caught the "I Feel Fat" Spell and innocently passed it on, there are no bad guys here. You can heal and start role-modeling healthier behavior. We can turn the tide. If we can say no to racism, child abuse and animal cruelty we can say no to body hatred.
We are all listening and learning from each other. So can we agree to stop berating our bodies and start appreciating them for what they do for us? Can we stop dieting and restricting and learn how to eat real, delicious food in moderation? Can we learn to move our bodies in ways we love and rest when we need to? Can we learn to reach out for support when we are filled with emotions, rather than stuff them down or use substances or excessive behaviors to distract from them? Can we upgrade the soundtracks in our minds and speak more kindly to ourselves? Can we change the conversations we are having with each other about fats, carbs, calories and weight, to what truly matters and what we hope our kids will talk about? Can we commit to finding sweetness and fulfillment in our lives, even in the smallest of ways, rather than only from excess food or the fantasy of weight loss?
May we all learn these things and teach them to the children in our lives and may we all live healthily ever after.
To learn more about Andrea's new children's book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the "I Feel Fat" Spell, check out www.innersolutions.net
Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the "I Feel Fat" Spell as well as The Don't Diet, Live-It Workbook. She is also author of the upcoming book, Getting Over Overeating for Teens. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others.