I was in the fourth grade the first time someone called me fat. The details are fuzzy. I don’t remember who said it or who was around or how they reacted. I just remember the burning sensation that rushed across my skin.
I didn’t feel like my body was bad, but here was this kid telling me it wasn’t good. And it wasn’t the only time it happened. Family members began to comment here and there. Boys I had crushes on made their disinterest clear. Between these quiet-yet-sharp digs and the almost-exclusively thin bodies I saw on MTV and in the movies, I certainly didn’t enter adulthood with positive self-talk.
I have lived in a curvy body all my adult life. I have learned to care for it through exercise and health-conscious eating. A silver lining to experiencing these childhood moments is that I now think very carefully about how I talk about bodies with my young daughters. If you’re navigating similar waters, here are some words of wisdom from experts in the fields of adolescent health and mental wellness.
We usually pay close attention to what our kids hear. We might, for instance, avoid profanity if they’re within earshot or shield them from disturbing news stories. Beverly Hills pediatrician Nicole Nourmand says we would do well to avoid negative body talk as well, because what we think is innocuous might have a lasting impact. Calling a child “chubby” or commenting on how clothes look on their body are examples.
“We come in different shapes and sizes, and there isn’t one way to be healthy,” Nourmand says. “I encourage families to not comment on the looks of their children. At all. I try to shut down the paradigm of comparison and the idea of ‘good body’ versus ‘bad body.’”
Nourmand knows that she has only so much influence on parents during their short office visits. Ultimately, it is up to parents to reflect on — and possibly drastically change — how they talk about bodies as a family. This can also include how adults talk about themselves.
Sasha Hawkes, a licensed marriage and family therapist and parenting coach in L.A., says that 80 to 90 percent of her female clients (many of them mothers) express their own challenges with body image. Comments during sessions range from “I hate the way I look right now” to “The holidays are coming, and I need to lose weight before they get here.”
Hawkes works to normalize her clients’ experiences and to shift their perspectives, including reminding them that bodies change to grow and birth a baby, and that there is no specific body to “get back to” after that childbirth. And she sometimes discusses with clients how the negative self-talk of a parent can fuel negative self-talk in a child. “Even when we think we are hiding things from our kids, that doesn’t mean they are not picking up on how we feel,” she says. “Children read energy. If Mom or Dad is feeling bad about themself, a child can internalize that.”
Let’s talk about food
How we talk about food with our children is also critical to their mental and emotional health, says Claremont-based certified eating disorder specialist Sasha Taylor. Once again, using the labels “good” and “bad” can be a harmful practice. “This is a big missing piece for people,” she says. “Food is so villainized. Instead, I take an approach of food neutrality, or ‘all foods fit.’ And another big part of raising body-positive kids is respecting their autonomy, and that includes their autonomy around food.”
When I pushed back about this last point, especially regarding foods that many of us would call “unhealthy,” Taylor shares a personal example to prove that you can remain neutral about a specific food while also respectfully guiding your child. “I love chocolate, and my 3-year-old does, too,” she says. “So, sometimes we say, ‘Yeah, let’s have some M&Ms!’ Other times I might say, ‘Oh, that’s not available right now, but maybe we can have it tomorrow.’”
L.A.-based nutrition therapist Robyn Goldberg agrees that normalizing all foods and food groups is an important goal for families. By the time adolescents come to Goldberg, they usually have a diagnosed eating disorder. She works to unravel their negative associations with food and help them get back to the intuitive eating we all did as infants — eating when we are hungry and stopping when we are satisfied.
Goldberg says it’s important for us as the adults in the room to reflect on our own food narratives. Do we model restrictive eating? Do we eliminate foods in the name of weight loss or better health? Do we harbor our own fat biases?
“Some parents are really entrenched in diet culture,” Goldberg says. “Some are uncomfortable if their child is in a larger body or if they look different than their friends. There is so much judgment and stigma and shame, and that’s a lot to put on a child.”
It is a myth that a larger body is automatically an unhealthy body, says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Greta Angert. Children grow at their own rate, and pediatricians regularly refer to a child’s growth chart. Unless there are sudden changes from one year to the next, your child is likely progressing as they should be.
“Unless a doctor has run all the tests and done all the lab work and discovered something specific, there’s no reason to think that someone in a larger body is necessarily less healthy than someone in a smaller body,” Angert says.
While reframing our thinking around bodies and food might feel downright radical to some, Angert says it’s critical. “It is hard to break those cycles,” she acknowledges. “Family members might have to be educated about this. Eliminate body talk. Don’t talk about weight or how much someone is eating. It is a revolutionary way to think. But once you embrace it and practice it, it is liberating and freeing and a much healthier way to be in the world.”
Elizabeth Schacter, a school site counselor for an independent school in Los Angeles, knows that sometimes a child’s self-confidence can falter on the playground. One child comments negatively on another child’s body, and his words plant a seed of doubt that can grow like weeds in the other child’s mind.
When a student arrives in Schacter’s office after a scenario like this, she normalizes body differences in kid-friendly language and shines light on all the amazing things an able body can do, such as jump and dance and climb.
“All bodies are different, and all bodies are useful,” she says. “We talk about the advantages of being the tallest in class, the shortest in class and so on. And I remind them that their body is growing the exact way it should grow for them.”
Having children say affirmations out loud about their bodies can be empowering. Parents can model phrases such as “My body is so strong when…” or “My body can…” and stress that young bodies must change to grow up.
Taylor believes that affirmations such as “I am strong” and “I am kind” help children develop an internal sense of self-worth. “This idea of ‘If I’m not attractive, I’m not valuable’ is prevalent in teens,” she says. “That’s often when we see mood disorders and eating disorders start. If your child is on social media, talk to them about what they’re consuming and how it makes them feel. Because if all they’re seeing is thin bodies or altered bodies, their brains shift. What is around us is our one view of beautiful.”
Taylor’s philosophy on physical beauty stands in stark contrast to Hollywood. “Your appearance is the least interesting thing about you,” she says.
I felt myself pause at the statement because it’s a belief I’m not fully living yet. But I’m aiming for that target. And I’ll continue to do the work it takes to help my daughters get there, too.
Picture Books That Promote Positive Self-Talk
Let’s help our kids develop a positive body image when they are little. Here are a few picture books we love. Let them help you love your own body, too!
- “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont
- “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers
- “What I Like About Me” by Allia Zobel-Nolan
- “Bodies Are Cool” by Tyler Feder
Chelsee Lowe is a writer and mom in L.A. who writes about food, culture and travel.