Teaching Kids About Healthy Body Image: Tips from the Experts at Beauty Redefined
By Tina Mattsson
As every adult knows, the rise in media consumption by kids and teenagers is incredible. One study showed that kids ages 8-18 are viewing media approximately 7.5 hours a day. Another study showed the average height and weight of a model is 5’10” and 110 pounds, while the average female is 5’4” and 145 pounds (“Media and Body Image,” 2015). Considering how much media children see, it’s easy to understand why teens can have such distorted views about body image.
Lindsay and Lexie Kite are identical twins who experienced first-hand the negative impact of having a preoccupation with weight and appearance. Both received PhDs from the University of Utah in 2013. They started their nonprofit called Beauty Redefined in 2009. Beauty Redefined is dedicated to promoting positive body image, and their mantra is “Women are more than just bodies. See more. Be more.”
“We need to define positive body image in terms of feeling good about yourself overall, the way your body works, the way you feel, and not just what it looks like,” Lindsay said in a recent phone interview. In their research, the Kite sisters found about 30% of the women they studied felt mostly or totally positive about their bodies. That means the vast majority, more than 70%, self-reported they didn’t have a positive body image. This reflects other research that shows most girls and women feel negatively about their bodies.
While their research mainly focuses on girls and women, they have learned body image issue and eating concerns among boys and men are on the rise. They attribute that to the way fitness is defined in media and cultural ideals.
Some of the biggest factors affecting teens’ body image are media and cultural influences. (Which is what motivated us at Educate and Empower Kids to release our first children’s books addressing healthy body image.)
Media defines what beauty is in very strict and narrow ways. For example, female characters on TV and in movies will have tiny little waists, large chests, and long flowing hair that could only be achieved with extensions. “Girls learn to perceive this as being normal, and so they will always be abnormal in comparison,” said Lindsay. Boys do get similar messages, but not to that degree, because even when boys are viewing male characters in media having outrageous body ideals, those characters are still being valued for things other than what they look like.
Lindsay said the best advice she can give parents is to keep the focus in your household and all your conversations off appearance. “.” For example, when young girls hear their moms or sisters or other female role models talking about how fat they look today or how a certain pair of pants makes them look fat, they will internalize that. Girls learn from these types of comments that fat is a bad thing, and if they have any fat, they are gross too. She said it’s not just the way we talk about ourselves either. It’s how we talk about celebrities or neighbors or other kids or people at church. “When we are talking about anyone’s appearance, kids are guaranteed to listen, and they pick up on the judgments all the time and see it as a reflection on themselves.”
Encouraging children to eat healthily without discussing food in terms of weight and appearance can be tricky. Lindsay makes the point that health is falsely defined by how people look when in reality health is measured by what’s going on inside your body. She suggests talking about what food does for you and which food is appropriate for different situations and different times. Talk about how food is energy and fuel, and energy is what helps our bodies do the fun things we want to do, like taking a bike ride or participating in a dance class. She also cautions against moralizing food by saying certain foods are good or certain foods are bad because a child may feel shame if they eat a so-called “bad” food.
Also, as one might expect, social media negatively affects body image, and is a much larger problem for girls than for boys. Studies show girls and women spend significantly more time on social media than boys and men. Teens share images of themselves and then receive validation based on what they are posting, and the comments are almost always related to appearance. Studies also show a correlation between social media use and how people feels about themselves. Lindsay recommends having very open and honest conversations with your kids about how you personally have been negatively affected by social media, and how seeing people doing things without you or looking a certain way can make you feel self-conscious. Lindsay shared that in her dissertation research, she found that women who felt negatively about their bodies overwhelmingly used social media in the highest numbers, and women who felt better about their bodies didn’t use social media that much.
Tips for teaching good body image
- Keep the focus in your household and all your conversations off appearance
- Encourage children to eat healthily without discussing food in terms of weight and appearance
- Don’t moralize food by saying certain foods are “good” or certain foods are “bad”
- Have very open and honest conversations with your kids about how you personally have been negatively affected by social media
- Remember some of the biggest factors affecting teens’ body image are media and cultural influences
Ready for a fun, engaging way to talk about healthy body image? Check out our new children’s books! We have one for girls called Messages About Me, Sydney’s Story: A Girl’s Journey to Healthy Body Image, and one for boys called Messages About Me, Wade’s Story:A Boy’s Quest for Healthy Body Image.
Tina Mattsson has a BA in Journalism with a Minor in English. She is a mother, writer, and advocate for children’s safety and education.
Media and Body Image. (2015). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.waldencenter.org/popular-searches/media-and-body-image/