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Modeling Positive Body Image

How To Model Positive Body Image To Your Child

It's better to look good than to feel good.

It's not just a funny phrase from a Saturday Night Live skit. It's something that's been drilled into many of our heads, especially women, since the time we were children. But such an attitude about our outward appearance can spark many unhealthy problems like eating disorders, poor self-esteem or obsession about our bodies. Is that what you want to pass on to your kids? Or do you want them to learn, instead, that it's about how you feel, not how you look.

Studies show that 40 percent of girls younger than 10 have already been on a diet, and the number of obese children and adolescents in the U.S. has doubled since the early 1970s. Such statistics illustrate this is a real problem we need to address – and fast. How do we help our kids develop a healthy image about their bodies?

Love Yourself

When 45-year-old Melinda Vilas of Sarasota, Fla., was a child, her mother was never happy with the way she looked and let others' opinions about her body rule her life. "Being 'perfect' no matter what the cost – diet pills, starvation – were worth the end result: an admiring glance or a compliment, even if it was from a stranger," says Vilas.

Such insecurities made a lasting impression on Vilas, who is now writing a book entitled Bye, Bye Barbie: Release the Fantasies That Keep You in a Fairy Tale World. She grew up battling bulimia, dieting and obsessing about her body. "I learned or interpreted at an early age that a few extra pounds could mean the difference between love/admiration and indifference," she says.

After all, if you, as a parent, aren't comfortable in your own skin, how can you expect your children to be?

"Parents should take an honest look at their own relationship with their body, such as their own satisfaction level, shame and how much cultural expectations and media have affected their views," advises Eileen Padham, an adolescent body image therapist at Remuda Ranch programs for anorexia and bulimia in Wickenburg, Ariz.

"If a parent is proud of their body, no matter what their size, they send a strong message: I'm OK, you're OK. On the other hand, a parent like mine that was uncomfortable in her skin passes that same phobia on to their child," says Vilas. "It has taken more than four decades to realize I am a perfect me, not a perfect somebody else, and that is more than enough."

Be a Model

Do you ever make comments like "I look so fat," or "Boy, Cindy could stand to lose a few pounds"? Do you find yourself reaching for the ice cream when you're depressed or choosing to take the elevator rather than walk up the stairs?

Guess what? Your children, even toddlers, are paying attention. "Young kids, especially before puberty, tend to model their parents, especially their same-sex parent," says Salvatore Cullari, professor and chair of the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

So alcoholic parents tend to produce alcoholic children, and smokers tend to produce smokers. So why not model good habits instead of bad ones? One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to model the behavior you want your children to imitate.

"Children learn more by action than words," says Padham. "Because the child is impressionable, and the parents are the most consistent influence in the young child's life, they can affect how the child views what her body can do, how the child speaks about her body and other bodies and especially, how the child deals with change."

Michelle Rathman, a 35-year-old mom in St. Charles, Ill., has long struggled with weight issues from her experience as an abused and overweight child. As an adult, she frequently hid food in her desk drawers and one day discovered her then 10-year-old daughter was doing the same. "We teach our children our own terrible eating habits, and we pass our issues on to them," she says.

Susan Fletcher, a psychologist in private practice in Dallas, Texas, points out that like Rathman and her daughter, it's not just what you say, but what you do. "A lot of these messages are indirect. It's not a big talk you have with your child," she says. "It's the indirect witnessing [children] do of how people behave."

Learn Together

Rathman, who has battled her weight issues along with her son and daughter, now works to improve the family's health and fitness. As she began to get more educated about fitness, food and nutrition, she shared that information with her children. "I teach them it's OK to have snacks and treats, but do it so you're respecting your body," she says. They also work out together regularly, running, Rollerblading and more.

You should also talk openly about your own health. Being a good role model does not mean you have to be perfect; it's about setting a good example through the decisions you make in your life.

Genie O'Malley of Mt. Shasta, Calif., was ridiculed as a child because she was overweight. It took her years and even several suicide attempts to come to terms with her weight and her past, eventually enabling her to drop several clothing sizes. Now, the 32-year-old mother of two is currently working to lose weight from her last pregnancy, and she talks candidly with her children about it.

"We openly discuss what I am doing to change my body, and I share with my daughter openly that I feel it is necessary to live as a healthy, fit woman," says O'Malley, also the author of Complete Earthly Woman. "Share openly with your children what you consider to be a healthy body, and make those views open to accepting all shapes and sizes."

Start Early

Childhood is an impressionable time when your kids are developing all sorts of ideas about themselves and the world, so it's critical to instill healthy habits early.

"Childhood is the most significant time where personality and world view are developed," says Padham. "Body image has a lot to do with what a person sees to be of value, and childhood is the time when values are taught and modeled."

Starting early will go a long way toward helping your children develop a positive image of their bodies later in life. "As the child matures – especially through adolescence, when a natural increase in body focus is appropriate – the foundation for her thinking, her socializing and her sense of worth comes from her childhood experiences and modeling," says Padham.

Get started on the road to health now. Not only will your children benefit from a healthier lifestyle and opinion about themselves, you will, too.

"I look in the mirror now, and I love what I see," says Rathman. "I know I have a gift of being here. It's not about how I look, but about how I feel."

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