How Possible Is It To Shield Kids From Unhealthy Body Image & Bad Dieting Habits?


The average child will see up to 40,000 advertisements this year, many of which will be paid for by the $40 billion diet industry. They will see ads telling them they need to lose weight, then revealing the supposed consequences of not doing so: loneliness, exclusion, failure. They’ll see hundreds — if not thousands — of “Before” and “After” photo sets, with the former showing a sad, miserable-looking subject and the latter involving sex appeal and happiness, all because of a “quick” change to the tummy area after an “easy” diet and exercise regime. So is it a futile fight to try keeping kids from all the bad dieting tips and terrible body image outlooks?

This week, Dancing With The Stars co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet told People that she never uses the words “diet” or “fat” in front of her children, who are 4, 6, 10 and 12 in order to maintain a healthy body image:

“I try to never use words like ‘fat’ or ‘diet.’ I try to choose my words carefully with my kids. It’s just about making good choices and enjoying what we eat and making delicious flavorful foods that are healthy. I’m just teaching them about being healthy and strong, not about being thin.”

When I first read this, the pessimist in me could not help but think that it’s nearly impossible to stop kids from being exposed to damaging images, advice and advertisements, thus rendering these efforts futile. Even the most healthy parents with the healthiest body images can’t stop middle school from being a generally hellish place for preteen girls to go and gain every piece of information they need in order to hate themselves for, oh, the next five to ten years. I still remember the first time I was called “ugly,” as well as the first time I was called “fat”; that sort of stuff sticks with you, no matter how much your parents tell you that you’re pretty.

But then I started thinking more about the actual impact it would have done for me to have already internalized — prior to being bullied — that being healthy is more important than being pretty in other people’s eyes. Would things have turned out differently for my body image? Maybe, maybe not, but when I look at my friends who are the most comfortable with their bodies, they’re the ones with parents who never told them to drop pounds and instead taught them the importance of healthiness far beyond the size of your pants.

Obviously, this doesn’t solve everything — eating disorders will still exist, body image issues as a result of advertising will still be an issue, but when parents or other adult role models tell kids that what’s literally inside and how well it functions counts more than how you look on the outside, they often listen more than it may seem. Plus, telling kids not to focus on others’ bodies may just cut down on bullying, which would then decrease the problem overall. Perhaps the optimist in me is showing too hard, but I can’t help but think that as long as 50% of girls 11 to 13 think they’re overweight and need to diet, we need to try whatever possible to stop the bad dieting and image issues, no matter how uphill the battle seems.

Photo: LauraLewis23 / Flickr

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    • CMJ

      I have awesome, awesome parents and an awesome husband who never made/make comments about my weight and are always supportive and sometimes, I still get frustrated with my size. And most of it has to do with the body images portrayed outside of my family, friends, husband, etc – Stick Thin for the Win!! (Add some larger boobs and then you’re “curvy!”) I will never be tiny – my thinnest was 140 pounds and people were asking me if I was eating and I looked “too thin” – I have wide hips, boobs, bigger legs, and a tiny waist. I was first called “fat” in seventh grade. It was baby fat – but still, enough for kids to be mean. I felt fat all through high school (my mom finally had to tell me – “You are not fat – you have tiny friends and a different body than some girls.) . It took me a looong time to realize that I really do have a “womanly” figure. I’m okay with it MOST of the time – but man, sometimes I wish they would make nice jeans for people who have larger than average thighs.

      • Samantha Escobar

        Good gracious, I really really wish they would make jeans for larger hips and “disproportionately” skinnier legs. It would make me not have to pull mine up every five seconds, guh.

    • Fabel

      Regardless of the negative body messages children will eventually, inevitably (& unfortunately!) receive in the outside world, I still think it’s really important for parents to set a good example in this area, at home. My own mother was very well-intentioned, but she still disparaged her own body in front of me, & I can say that definitely had an effect on me for a while. Like, for example, she always referred to herself as “pear shaped” as if that was OMG the worst thing, so I basically spent puberty terrified of growing hips.

      I don’t have children, but there’s a girl in my family that’s essentially my “niece” (the accurate relation is too complicated to get into) & I make sure to never talk negatively about my own body in front of her. Not that it’s a habit of mine anyway, but I think most people are guilty of letting seemingly harmless things slip (“UGH I feel FAT TODAY!” “Whoops, gained 5 pounds over the holidays! Gotta watch what I eat!”)

    • Amy

      Not to take away from your awesome article and even awesome comments, but I really really want to eat that donut.

    • Eileen

      I do think it’s important to try, but it’s still a losing battle. My mother NEVER called herself fat (though she admitted, once I was an adult, that she often felt it, which is ridiculous because she’s quite thin) or let us know that she was on any kind of diet. We never had diet products in the house, and she didn’t have exercise equipment or anything like that. She ate most things in moderation, was reasonably active, wore makeup only on special occasions, and bought clothes that fit, whatever the size. My sisters and I have all had struggles like any other girl. We’re probably helped by Mom’s example, but we agonized over our figures starting in middle school. I know that these days I’m less harsh on my body than I used to be, and I’ve grown into barely wearing makeup, but having non-body-conscious parents didn’t save me from the crap that comes with being an American woman.

      • ktree

        I have an awesome mom just like yours. I’ve gained weight and she’s never said word one about it. I have friends whose mothers are SO NASTY to them – telling them they are too pale, harrassing them for gaining five pounds, that kind of shit. It just breaks my heart. These are gorgeous women, too. I’ve been called fat and I don’t give two shits, but if it was my mother calling me fat? oh would I have issues.