Preventing bad body image in kids

Developing a healthy attitude to food and exercise.
Developing a healthy attitude to food and exercise. Photo: Getty Images

When you have children, most people are generally not looking ahead to the teenage years, but it is important that the foundations for developing a healthy body image start early. While eating disorders can occur in people at any age, evidence shows that adolescents are increasingly at risk. Instilling your child early with the necessary skills to cope with the pressures they can be faced with from the media and their peers will act as protection against developing negative attitudes and behaviours towards food and exercise.

For many people, eating disorders represent the extreme case scenario. Many still assume eating disorders only affect spoilt teenage girls who spend too much time trying to emulate the latest Hollywood reality star. Most people also assume an eating disorder will never happen to them or one of their kids. But eating disorders specialists see people from all walks of life, from different socio-economic backgrounds and males as well as females.

Most young people with an eating disorder that use Eating Disorders Victoria’s services come from loving families, have good educations and their parents and families don’t know why their loved one is affected by this devastating illness.

Whilst there is no magic bullet in preventing your child from developing an eating disorder, there are a number of things you can do as a parent to help develop protective factors and boost your child’s self-esteem and body image. A person’s family, friends, acquaintances, teachers and the media all have an impact on how that person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance.

Children are very impressionable so it is important to be a positive role model. Here are some tips that you can implement into your everyday routine to assist you in having a positive influence upon your child’s attitudes to their body, food and exercise.

Avoid making disparaging comments about your own appearance in front of your children. Being self critical in front of your kids normalises this type of behaviour and can see kids adopt the same attitudes. Even if you feel like an outfit clings in all of the wrong places and you decide to change, use comments like “the colour clashed” or “I think I would be more comfortable in something else”, instead of saying “I looked really fat” or “it made my butt look huge”. Belonging to a family that does not overemphasize weight and physical attractiveness is known to be a protective factor against developing an eating disorder.

Refrain from using extreme weight loss practices. Once again it is about teaching a healthy and relaxed attitude to food from a young age. Disordered eating, of which dieting is the most common form, is the greatest risk factor in the development of an eating disorder. Even if your child never develops an eating disorder, one of the best things you can do for your child is to not normalise yo-yo or fad weight loss dieting. Weight loss and ‘fad’ diets do not take individual requirements into consideration and can result in a person feeling hungry, experiencing low moods, lacking in energy levels and developing poor health.

Remind your children that people come in different shapes and sizes and the way that young people develop is hugely influenced by genetics, regardless of lifestyle factors. Teach your children to accept body shape diversity amongst their peers and themselves, and to not try and compare their own bodies with others. It is important to help your child to understand that everyone’s body is different and will develop at different rates.

Eat regular meals as a family. Studies have indicated that family meal time is a protective factor against the development of an eating disorder as it encourages open communication and provides kids with a structured meal time. In order to create a pleasant space where children feel comfortable, avoid discussing family issues or eating habits at the table; don’t insist everything on the plate must be eaten but to at least taste it all; and teach your child to eat all foods slowly and appreciatively in a relaxed and guilt-free manner.

Avoid categorizing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and rather as ‘sometimes’ and ‘everyday’ foods. By adopting an overall healthy and relaxed attitude to eating, it can help avoid the guilt associated with having the odd ‘sometimes food’. It can also help reduce the likelihood of engaging in excessive weight loss dieting or binge eating.

Adopt a healthy and relaxed attitude to exercise and treat it as an enjoyable activity as opposed to compensate for calories eaten or to purge fat from your body. Exercise with your kids and adopt it as a fun family pastime. Children who come from families that enjoy healthy doses of exercise will be more likely to exercise in a positive way themselves.

The role of the media

Children are often unable to distinguish advertising tricks such as digital manipulation from reality. This can result in the development of unrealistic body image ideals and the use of dieting and other means to obtain the look for themselves. Media literacy is an invaluable skill for both children and adults as it provides people with the ability to analyse and evaluate the messages they receive from the media. Media messages about dieting, exercise, fat and weight loss shows send many unhelpful and unhealthy messages that many argue are inappropriate for younger children (or in general). Rather than instilling our children with a fear of fat, aim to send healthier messages about balance and moderation.

Adopting a healthy, relaxed approach to eating and exercise is a positive start to ensuring your child develops the skills to cope with societal pressures as well as having a positive relationship with food and physical activity.

If you are concerned that your child is at risk of developing an eating disorder, contact the Eating Disorders Helpline 1300 550236 or visit