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Pint-Sized Body Image

How to shape the way your children see themselves

One morning before school, Michelle Bradley of Sewell, N.J., noticed her daughter, Dana, checking her reflection in the mirror and pulling her shirt sleeve. "I don't like this top, Dana said. "It makes me look fat." Michelle told Dana she looked pretty, but Dana changed into another shirt anyway.

Dana's awareness and unpleasant feelings toward her body image are not an uncommon feeling among young children in today's body-conscious culture. "Body image is an issue for preschoolers today and it can get worse as a child ages if they do not get the right messages from their parents," says Dr. T. Joel Wade, chair and professor of psychology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

Do I Look Fat?

Dr. Wade, who conducts research in the area of body image and self-esteem, says that parents want to be careful not to compare their preschooler's body images to an unrealistic body image, which may lead to eating disorders. He reminds parents that children's bodies often change as they reach puberty.

Dr. Abby Aronowitz, psychologist and author of Your Final Diet, has worked with many children and their parents on body image issues. She suggests that parents give compliments to their child that focus on their character and skill development as opposed to physical attributes.

"Talk about their kindness, humor or abilities, as opposed to how they look," Dr. Aronowitz says. "Frequently complimenting their appearance leads to too much emphasis on it. Compliments about weight loss can reinforce the obsession about it and tie self-esteem to the number of pounds on their body."

Dr. Aronowitz says parents can nurture their child's body image in several ways.

  • Be a good role model. "Let them see you eating moderately and exercising moderately; extremes in either direction can present a bad example," she says. "Never put your own body down in front of your child or talk about dieting."
  • Focus on function. When discussing physical bodies, the focus should be on function, not appearance. For example, talk about what a good hugger they are, or how their body helps them to do so many fun things.
  • Avoid arguments about food. "Allow as much freedom as is practical for them to listen to their bodies regarding food," she says. "Let them eat when hungry and stop when full."
  • Stock the house with "healthy junk food." Select some tasty picks, such as Genisoy chocolate covered soy nuts, Garden of Eatin' sesame blue chips and Brent & Sam's oatmeal pecan cookies, and incorporate it into their allotted calories. "This will be satisfying as well as nutritious, and can prevent binge eating on unhealthy snacks," she says.

It is never too early to help your child develop good body image, according to Debbie Mandel, fitness and stress management expert and author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul . "The No. 1 way to do this is to exercise!" she says. "Do it with your kids to generate health and good energy. Go hiking, take nature walks, plant a garden, go to the beach – make your children feel a part of nature. Also, encourage your children to cultivate and express their own style."

Mandel points out that preschoolers respond to affirmations of what they are doing right. "Parents can boost self-esteem during each day and also create affirmation cards with pictures – together," she says. "Then each day shuffle like a deck of cards and pick the positive message of the day."

Counteracting Media Images

Dr. Virginia Shiller, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the book Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting, acknowledges that it is very hard for children to grow up in a society in which models, actors and actresses are extraordinarily slim, while the more general culture promotes obesity.

"Ironically, the public is bombarded both with commercials that feature extremely sleek and fit women and men, but also with advertisements for food products which are extremely high calorie," Dr. Shiller says.

To combat these powerful media images and help keep their children from feeling dissatisfied with their bodies, Dr. Shiller recommends that parents start by reducing the amount of time children spend watching TV or looking at popular magazines featuring idealized images. "Then they can discuss with children the discrepancy between the shapes of models and that of their friends and neighbors," she says. "Parents can wonder with their children how models struggle to maintain their slim physiques, and whether they are truly as happy as they appear in ads."

Finally, parents can try their best to communicate acceptance for children's bodies, no matter what their weight. "Parents are influenced by the larger culture, just as their children are, and they are likely to wish for their children to be slim," Dr. Shiller says. "But, while parents have limited ability to control messages from the larger culture, they can control what they communicate to their children."

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