Recently, I made a huge mistake. I critiqued my own looks in front of my 4-year-old daughter.
It’s no secret watching your body change during pregnancy and postpartum isn’t easy. In my third trimester, with both pregnancies, I wouldn’t let anyone take my picture because I felt heavy, huge and—I confess—ugly. I’ve always struggled with body issues and pregnancy didn’t help.
Recently, I stood in front of the full-length mirror in my “birthday suit” and stared: from the front view, side view and back view. Under my breath I muttered, “Ugh, this gross belly pooch is never going away.”
To my shock, my older daughter, who was playing on my bedroom floor, dropped her crayon, patted her own adorable little belly and said, “Mommy, do I have a gross belly pooch?”
In that moment, my heart broke. Her innocent question was a major wake-up call for me. I don’t want my daughters to have body issues, let alone ones potentially perpetuated by me, their mom, the one who is there to buoy their spirits and love them unconditionally. I don’t want them growing up as self-conscious about their looks as I was—and still am.
Unsure of how to handle body-image situations like this, I consulted with Dr. Robi Ludwig, a New York, NY-based psychotherapist and author of Your Best Age Is Now., who gave me some tips on how to create a body-positive message for my daughter—and myself.
More: Positive Body Image: 5 Steps to Get There Now
Q: How damaging is it to put yourself down in front of your children?
A: As a parent, you always want to model healthy behaviors for your kids. If a parent is obsessing about their weight and putting themselves down in front of their child, it can send the message one is only as lovable and attractive as the image that’s being reflected back to them in the mirror. It can make it more challenging for a child to grow up with healthy ideas about beauty, weight and what is healthy.
Q: What can potentially happen if a child sees their parents putting each other down, looks-wise?
A: If a child witnesses parents critiquing each other’s weight and looks, that type of interaction can come off as normal, even though it borders on being verbally abusive and definitely verbally devaluing. A child who sees this type of exchange might internalize this kind of verbal interaction as normal. They might also adopt this verbal style in their own relationships, and/or be drawn to relationships where this type of verbal exchange appears commonplace, familiar and hence desirable—either as the initiator or recipient.
Q: How can parents create a body-positive message for their kids?
A: The best type of message a parent can send their child is that beauty comes in many different forms, and one the most important goals when it comes to one’s body, is to be healthy. Focus on both a child’s inner and outer beauty, and point out beauty role models who have a similar look to your child. This can serve as a positive motivator for a kid to embrace and love their own unique look.
Q: Does body image affect little girls more than boys?
A: Boys as well as girls are impacted by cultural ideas about what is desirable when it comes to body image. Having said that, looks have always been less important to a man’s overall success in life and I do think this message does get sent both consciously and unconsciously to each gender while growing up.
Q: What are some misconceptions about body image and its impact on boys?
A: Despite the current public perception, body image issues and eating disorders happen to boys as well as girls. According to one expert researcher in the area, about one out of every four boys suffers from this type of diagnostic problem. Sometimes, the body obsession takes a different form called muscle dysmorphia, which is the obsession to ‘bulk up’—the reverse anorexia of sorts.
Some of these body image issues go undetected or undiagnosed in boys, which could explain some of the varying stats we see. Another study found that nearly 18 percent of adolescent boys are concerned about their bodies and their weight. Among those boys, half wanted to gain more muscle and a third wanted to gain muscle and get thinner.
More: When Teens Obsess About Their Weight
Q: With vulnerable kids at home, how can parents deal with some of their own body-image issues?
A: I think parents need to know that what they do and say, and how they act, including how they treat themselves, sends a powerful message to their children, so they need to think about the types of messages they want to send to their kids.
It’s also beneficial for moms to educate themselves about the postpartum body. It takes time to get back into shape. Understanding this can be hugely helpful and minimize the tendency to be self-loathing and self-attacking. And the best antidote to being dissatisfied with one’s body is to take the appropriate and healthy actions. So, if you’re unhappy with something about yourself, turn your dissatisfaction into a new goal.
Q: Why, overall, is this such an important parenting issue?
A: I think we need to be able to see both in ourselves and in others, different types of beauty when it comes to body types. If you want to feel good about how you look, work toward being your best self and be willing to parent body image issues with your kids from a positive perspective and supportive parenting style.