Given we’re bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards and constant criticism of women’s bodies in the media, body confidence is understandably a difficult thing for many of us to master. However, if we feel negatively about our bodies as adults, how can we expect young girls to grow up with a healthy attitude to theirs?
A recent survey conducted by The Be Real Campaign, found that two in three secondary aged school children worry about parts of their appearance, while a US survey last year found that children as young as five say they don’t like their bodies.
In order to break the cycle of negative body image and to help children – particularly girls who have additional pressure placed on their appearance – feel comfortable and happy about the way they look, whatever their size and shape, we need to change the dialogue around image, particularly as parents.
Here are some key statements parents should avoid saying to, or in front of, their daughters:
1. “She shouldn’t be wearing that”
The way we speak about other adults’ bodies is important to consider. Liam Preston, head of the Be Real Campaign for body confidence, says it’s all about establishing what’s “normal” in your household.
“When a lot of people are watching TV, they can be quite critical of what they see on screen,” he says. “‘She shouldn’t be wearing that outfit,’ or, ‘They look too big,’ or, ‘They look too skinny’. It’s easy for people to say stuff they wouldn’t say in person about people they’re watching on TV, often in front of their own children.”
Disparaging other people’s bodies then becomes the norm and children may assume those types of comments are made about their own bodies by strangers too.
Consultant clinical psychologist, and author of The Supermum Myth, Dr Rachel Andrew adds: “In clinical sessions, children will say, ‘Other girls think I’m fat’, and will evidence what they have heard people say about others to back this up, even if they have never heard anything directly said about themselves.”
2. “I look awful/ I need to lose weight”
How you feel and talk about your own body will have a direct impact on how your daughter sees hers.
“Parents are a huge influence on the way that children see themselves, others and the world,” says Dr Andrew. “If a mother consistently talks negatively about her own body in front of her child, she is telling her child that the way bodies look is important, [that they] should look a certain way and if they don’t, this leads to unhappiness.
“A child often cannot understand the wider context, so will take on these messages in a simple form like, ‘Looking a certain way will make me happy’. This can set up a life-long association that the way a person looks equates to their happiness.”
Of course, the outside world is full of criticism and stereotypes about women’s bodies, and Dr Andrew says it’s worth “being aware of their impact” on your child. “You are not going to be able to shield them from this completely, but you can increase resilience by modelling the messages you want them to take, through your own attitude and behaviour.”
3. “This is a ‘bad’ food”
Developing a healthy relationship with food is a key component of achieving a healthy attitude to body image.
“If you say, ‘This is a good food or a bad food’, young people will pick up on that straightaway, and that isn’t good for them as they try and understand what their own bodies need,” Preston says. “As an adult worried about your [own] weight, it’s easy to say, ‘I probably shouldn’t have that’, but if you label it as ‘bad food’ that’s something young people will think too, regardless of the context within which you’re saying it.”
4. “You look bigger/slimmer”
Pointing out how your daughter’s appearance has changed is risky, even if you mean it as a compliment. It might imply that something was wrong with her appearance before, and she may put pressure on herself to continue looking that way.
Preston says: “In life we often say, ‘Oh you look really good, you’ve lost a lot of weight’ or, ‘You look thinner’. But that reinforces this message [to children] that you have to look a certain way.”
What if you’re worried about the change in your daughter’s weight for health reasons, though? While it’s important for parents to notice changes to their children’s health, this needs to be tackled with caution, and in a positive way – encouraging them to join a sports team or help you cook healthy meals, for example.
Dr Andrew says: “Putting on or losing significant weight can be a sign there may be an emotional or physical health problem, so it’s natural parents act on this when necessary. Rather than raise an issue with weight, talk about their life more generally – how are things with school, friends, sleeping, and how are they feeling at the moment? The answers are more likely to give you clues about if there’s an issue, and what to do about it.”
5. Compliments that are only about her image
“I don’t think there’s an issue telling your child they look nice in what they’re wearing, or that they look pretty, but if that’s the only compliment you’re giving your child and you’re not addressing the other reasons why they’re an amazing person young people will go through life thinking, ‘The only thing people care about is whether I look nice, or look pretty or whether this dress is good,'” explains Preston.
And here are some conversations we should be having…
Dr Andrew says: “Move the conversation to skills, talents and resources that you and your child share. Praise your child specifically for those: ‘You are so patient, caring, kind’, and comment on others with these attributes too. You might enlist the support of their favourite celebrity or Youtuber if they are also sending out a similar message.”
While Preston says: “The best way to shield your children from negative body image messages in the outside world is to have those conversations before they hear them. Talk about what it is to be positive about your body, and how the words you could say in a classroom could have a negative impact on someone’s life, and the best way to do that is talk to your children at an early age. Talk to them about the language they might hear in classrooms – are they hearing things? How does that make them feel? And should they be challenging people around them who do say those things?”
Clinical and forensic psychologist, Dr Shannon McHugh, has put together a guide on when to seek help about negative body image.