Are you self-conscious about a certain part of your body (eg. My thighs are too fat)? Or do you have certain beliefs about looks that habitually kick in, even when you know there’s no evidence to prove it (“Fat people are bad” or “Dark people cannot be trusted”)? Do you know where these beliefs come from?
Often, we develop certain beliefs about our bodies or looks based on comments we have heard—perhaps as children, when spoken to by a parent, teacher or other adult. Sometimes, we are able to overcome these beliefs, particularly when they’re not helpful to us. Sometimes, the way we see ourselves, and how we see others is impacted by these beliefs—and most often, we aren’t conscious of how our biases work.
What affects children’s body image:
A child as young as three or four years old may be influenced by what they see and hear around them. And there are some things that parents or other adults do that may impact them deeply:
How you talk about yourself: Children pick up a lot by simply observing how their parents and other adults behave. Pay attention to how you speak about yourself and your body. Do you call yourself fat or dark, or refer to your heavy arms, or say you shouldn’t wear certain clothes because of how you look in them? Remarks such as these may lead a child to wonder if there is something ‘wrong’ with their body too.
How you talk about others: Often, we use certain adjectives to talk about others without completely grasping the connotations: that thin girl, that pot-bellied man, that lady with the big nose, that fair child. When a child hears these labels, they may end up believing that looks are a large part of a person’s identity.
The impact of the words you use: In many families, the words ‘fat’ or ‘dark’ are used interchangeably with the word ‘ugly’ (“Chee! She’s so dark!”), while words such as ‘slim’ and ‘fair’ are sometimes used to mean acceptable. Remove the stigma around these words by telling your child that the word is just a description of shape, and is in no way connected to the personality.
Lack of clarity about how you relate to food: Do you refuse second helpings of a certain dish because you’re worried about getting fat? Do you not eat certain foods at all because of your weight worries? Avoid talking about diets or ‘fattening’ foods in the presence of kids, as this may give the impression that food causes all weight-related problems.
Here’s what you can do instead
Unconditional acceptance: Talk to your child and explain that who they are and how they are seen is defined by many things, of which looks are only a part. You could tell them that they are more than their looks or weight, and that beauty has nothing to do with their skin color. When you speak about them or to them, avoid addressing them with words that talk about how they look—shorty, lambu, fatty. Sometimes, parents use these words lovingly, or perhaps don’t even mean it—but these terms may impact the child on a subconscious level. If they are being teased about their looks, tell them that you love them the way they are. Give them appreciation that’s not based on how they look. Tell them what specifically you appreciate about them: their qualities, their talents, or what they do.
Talk to them about their body, and the changes to expect: As children approach puberty and experience bodily changes, they may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable with their bodies. Have a conversation with your child about what bodily changes they can expect and why the changes occur. Children who mature (develop secondary sexual characteristics) earlier or later than their peers may have trouble fitting in. Emphasize that the pace of growth may be different for different children.
Keep the lines of communication open: Let your child know that you’re willing to listen to their concerns and answer any questions they may have. When they talk to you, listen without reacting immediately or trying to fix the problem that instant. Give them space to talk about how they feel. Normalize their concerns (“I remember that I too had acne trouble in my teens and was worried about what others would say…”), and try to understand what’s bothering them.
Emphasize fitness, not size: Help your child understand that different people are made differently and that there’s no such thing as a right or wrong body type. Encourage them to look at their own body from a fitness perspective: Are they able to do tasks that other children of their age are doing? Are they physically active? Are they getting enough sleep? Do they have the stamina to get through a regular day? Make these goals the focus rather than weight. If you want to talk to a child about their weight, be factual and honest: “I am concerned that it will have an impact on your heart or your bones; just like a fever or cold has an impact on your body.”
Cultivate a healthy relationship with food: Help your child understand the importance of paying attention to the body’s needs and eat when the body is hungry. If you’re concerned about health, you could establish a general guideline about when or how often the child can eat junk food.
Be kind to yourself: Parenting is not easy. Most of us have our own biases and beliefs about our bodies and it’s hard to change it in a few weeks or months. Be kind to yourself if you do something you don’t like and remember that you’re trying the best you can.