The Power of Parents on their Child’s Body Image! Don’t underestimate it!!

By Emily Hulse, MS

Last week when I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, a link to an article that one of my friends shared quickly jumped out to me.  It was called “Experts:  Mom has biggest impact on girls’ body image.”  (It can be found at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/08/23/moms-daughters-influence-body-image/2690921/ and I would highly recommend the quick read.)  Anyways, being the mom of two little girls, I didn’t hesitate to click on the link and read the story.  Surprisingly, the article states that it’s not the media, peer pressure, or such that is the #1 cause of body issues for young girls – instead it’s their mothers.  They go on to say that time and time again research has shown that the same-sex parent is the most important role model for a child.  Thus, this message is just as important of a message for fathers with sons as it is for mothers with daughters. While body image may not be quite as big of an issue with boys as it is with girls, healthy habits and passing on healthy attitudes are important…. Mother or father, daughters or sons!

As I pondered this article for a bit it made me first think of my own mom and how fortunate I was that growing up I didn’t hear her talk about her body or appearance in a negative way.  I luckily didn’t have to watch her obsess over how she looked or the food she was or wasn’t eating or hear her compare herself to how my sister or I looked.  I attribute having a positive body image largely to the example of both my mom and grandma.  This doesn’t mean that I’ve never thought to myself oh I wish my legs were smaller or at certain times thought maybe I should lose a little weight; because I think it’s hard to live in our society and to never ever have those thoughts or to not compare ourselves to others.  I think those thoughts were probably most frequent my first year or so of college when I didn’t have my mom around and was surrounded by girls worrying about how they looked.

Unfortunately, I can think of friends whose moms had a negative body image and as a result, it impacted them in a negative way.  For example, one of my friend’s moms was a yo-yo dieter and weighed herself almost every day; consequently, as my friend got older she then did what she had watched her mom do for years and weighed herself on a daily basis and fretted about her weight fluctuating by a pound or two.  I remember a scale in our house when I was growing up but it was just under the bathroom sink and I never saw anyone use it really or my mom talk about it; I don’t even have a scale in my home now.  It’s not that I don’t think our weight isn’t an important number to know b/c research does show that with increased weight comes increased risk for diseases and cancers and such.  However, weight is just one number and isn’t the sole determinant of our health status.  A person may be skinny but not necessarily healthy.  I feel like my children and I are weighed on a frequent enough basis at the doctor’s office that I don’t need a scale in our home also.

Lately, it’s been really apparent to me how much my girls, like it or not sometimes, watch exactly what I say or do and then imitate the same thing; they really are these little sponges soaking every little thing in their environment up.  For example, my three year old pretends to go to work by grabbing my planner, putting on a pair of my dress shoes and some jewelry, and taking her baby doll to Meredith’s house (which is the name of her babysitter).  My girls also shove their baby dolls under their shirts when they’re playing sometimes because they know mommy has a baby in her tummy.  I catch them saying the exact same little phrases or words I say sometimes.  Whenever I grab a cloth to clean, my youngest daughter does the same.  My point with all of this is that from a really young age they notice every single thing we do and say, both the good and the bad, and this consequently impacts what they do and say.  So if I talk about how horrible I think I look in my swim suit or how I wish my thighs weren’t so big, they are unfortunately noticing that and going to wonder if they look okay in a swimsuit and such.

I want my children to have a healthy body image, be confident in themselves, and have a high self-esteem – as I’m sure every parent wants the same for their child as well.  However, this isn’t always an easy thing in today’s world; this means that as their mother I need to avoid focusing on outer appearances and avoid talking about diets and weight.  Instead, my focus be on healthy behaviors.  When the girls ask me why we are going to the YMCA today, I let them know it helps mommy to feel better and be healthy and happy instead of saying something like to help mom look better or so I can lose weight.  Recently, my youngest asked me if when she’s a mom she can bring her baby to the Y and go exercise.  I am constantly trying to find that balance or fine line between helping them to make healthy food choices but at the same time not being too restrictive of certain foods and such so that they don’t feel bad about eating less healthy foods sometimes.  I want them to have a good balance but not obsess over every food that is put in their mouth.  I know this is easier said than done as we have good intentions of wanting them to be healthy.  Parents – please don’t underestimate your power when it comes to the influence you have on your child’s body image!  Let’s do all we can to help them have a positive one!

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