This piece was originally published in Texarkana Parent Magazine in 2017.
Young girls are more afraid of “getting fat” than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents. Children as young as five years old express dissatisfaction with their bodies. More than half of girls and more than a third of boys ages 6 to 8 believe they need to be thinner. Nearly 25% of children between the ages of 7 and 10 have been on a diet in the last year. Negative body image among children can lead to eating disorders, which claim more lives than any other mental illness. The statistics go on and on.
The reasons for this body-obsessed culture among children are multifaceted. Most people first look to the media to blame, which is not unwarranted: 87% of female television characters between 10 and 17 are smaller than the average girl. Body diversity is not adequately represented in fashion, pop culture, or even educational materials. Digital editing complicates things further, allowing for the broadcast of images of not just rare bodies but literally unattainable bodies, altered on a computer screen.
But the media is not entirely culpable: well-meaning attempts at combatting the so-called “obesity crisis” have led to unhealthy and inaccurate beliefs about weight and health, and these misconceptions have influenced our nation’s children. Public campaigns against “childhood obesity” rely on the empty rhetoric that health and body size are conflated. Accordingly, adults attempt to ensure that their children do not become “overweight” or “obese,” terms that surprisingly have little to no scientific backing. Children are warned that certain foods will make them fat, are taught about calories, are put on restrictive diets, are forced to exercise. Simultaneously, they listen to the adults in their lives speak poorly about their own bodies as well and watch them foster unhealthy relationships with food and movement. They learn that certain bodies are to be coveted and others to be prevented. They learn that one’s health can be measured in pounds, can be determined with eyesight.
Of course, the data shows no such thing. In fact, according to a study from Stanford University, relative risk of all-cause mortality varies significantly by physical fitness but very little by body size. That is: nutritious eating and exercise influence a person’s lifespan, but body weight does not. In fact, a four-decade study from the Copenhagen University Hospital found that people considered “overweight” by the Body-Mass Index chart actually tend to live longer than their thin counterparts. Besides that, all available research indicates that long-term weight loss is impossible for about 95% of the population—and that number jumps almost to 100% when adults are excluded from the pool.
So what can we do to change the narrative from body-obsession to a focus on our children’s health?
- Monitor yours kids’ media, and teach them to think critically about the messages presented by pop culture and advertisements. Make a conscious effort to expose your children to bodies of all sizes and abilities.
- Talk (and act) positively about your own body. It is proven that children are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies if their parents express dissatisfaction with their own. Model healthy body image.
- Focus on healthy behaviors. Instead of avoiding high-calorie foods, seek out nutritiously-dense ones. Instead of stocking the pantry with weight-loss supplements, stock it with a variety of highly-palatable foods as well as fruits and vegetables.
- Make movement fun. Don’t go on a family hike to “burn off dessert”; do it to enjoy nature and one another.
- Encourage your children to appreciate their bodies for what they do, not what they look like.