How To Raise Body Happy Kids, According To An Expert

How To Raise Body Happy Kids, According To An Expert

Statistics show children become aware of their own bodies from as little as three-years-old, which implies it’s never too early to start nurturing a healthy relationship with food and exercise – especially when you hear that one in three teenage girls in the UK currently has an eating disorder. We asked Molly Forbes, mother of two and author of ‘Body Happy Kids’, to share her expertise on how to raise children with a positive body image. Here, she tells us why language and family mealtimes are so important, how to navigate diet culture, and why we shouldn’t blame everything on social media…

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What was it that made you write the book?

I wanted to actively change own relationship and mindset around food and my body. I was in an unhealthy place, and I didn’t want to pass any negative thoughts and behaviours onto my two young daughters. After a bit of research, I realised how aggressive messages around food are, particularly in the fitness and beauty industries – i.e. ones that profit from making people feel bad. In 2019 I launched ‘The Free From Diets’ campaign to advocate stricter rules in the way diet products were being advertised to children – I noticed many diet brands were using schools and community clubs to market their products. To me, that didn’t make sense. I received lots of messages on social media from worried parents, so I decided to put all the resources I’d found in one place. It’s incredible to think a book like this didn’t exist before!

Typically, when do children start to become aware of their own bodies?

Today’s generation of children can start feeling bad about their bodies at a very young age. Generally speaking, they’re being stigmatised for not fitting into a set of narrow beauty standards and they’re feeling more self-conscious, which affects them in a range of ways, from the way they see themselves to the way they treat other children. Evidence shows children from as young as three-years-old can feel bad about their body. Plus, a survey in 2016 by a childcare professional reported that 24% of nursery children start to have negative feelings at around the age of three, whether they think their tummy is fat or they don’t like the way their body is shaped. Toddlers start to realise that they have a body and even compare their bodies to other children, too – interestingly, they’re often drawn to those who look similar to them. However, it’s not clear as to when children start to develop a ‘body image’ in the formal sense of the word.

In the book, you talk about body image being more than simply liking how you look. How do you define it?

We need to be clear about what body image is, and what it isn’t. Often, we’re told by the industries who profit from us feeling bad about our bodies that if we change the way we look, our body image will improve. But actually, body image is a psychological construct; it’s the way we think and feel, and it’s so much more than looking in the mirror and liking what you see. A lot of evidence suggests people who don’t fit into the ‘ideal beauty’ box can still have a strong, positive body image. When it comes to body image, researchers tend to look at two things – body satisfaction (liking what you see) and body appreciation, where you feel at home in your body and appreciate what it can do. For little kids, that can be appreciating how great it feels to run around the park with friends, or how their bodies allow them to live their everyday lives. Boosting those moments of appreciation is key, because when we place too much value on the way our bodies look, it becomes problematic.

Are boys just as prone to body hang-ups as girls?

Traditionally, body image issues have always been seen as a ‘girls thing’, which might be because girls have typically been more open about voicing concerns. Historically, women and teenage girls have been more aggressively marketed towards make-up, clothes and the diet industry, but we know boys are catching up and are almost at the same level as girls when it comes to voicing concerns. We don’t know exactly why that is, but it might be because those industries are starting to target males, too. It could also be that as a society, we’re getting much better at talking about our feelings and there’s also a new vocabulary for boys to raise their concerns.

So, how do we shield children from diet culture?

We definitely need to be aware of diet culture, because it’s everywhere. However, it’s important to remember we can’t totally prevent kids from seeing those messages because they exist in so many forms. For example, in Peppa Pig, Daddy Pig’s body is always the punchline of the jokes, and Disney princesses all have a particular shape – kids learn from a very young age that fat is bad and thin is good. You can’t always protect them from these things, but you can call them out and recognise it. Be aware of how diet culture shows up in our day-to-day lives and choose the right language to talk to children about it. You can talk to kids from a really young age about what health is, and how they can look after their health, without changing the shape of their body. It’s about encouraging kids to start asking questions and become critical consumers.

Why is BMI an inaccurate way to measure a child’s health?

BMI is problematic because it’s a good way for measuring populational weight and body size, but as soon as we start conflating weight with health, we get into dangerous territory. When BMI was first created, it was never designed to measure individual health, it was designed as a tool to look at the population. In the 1950s, the American life insurance industry even used it to measure whether someone would quality for insurance – they decided what the ‘good’ weight was, based on white middle-aged men, which of course is not representative of everyone. When measuring kids on a height and weight chart, studies have shown that Black children will often be told that they’re overweight on the BMI scale, while those of Asian heritage are often classed underweight. This is because it doesn’t factor in body composition, or differences in different people. We need to not conflate weight with health as there are lots of different things that affect our weight which are out of our control.

Are there certain words adults shouldn’t use around children or teenagers? Or is banning them even worse?

When it comes to language, it’s really important to be mindful of the words you use. Neutral language is key – lose the morality around the way you discuss food and movement, and move away from the idea of ‘good food’, ‘bad food’ and ‘sinful food’. I’d even go as far to say that you shouldn’t label food as healthy or unhealthy because food has lots of different benefits, aside from fuelling the body. For example, one of the best things about a children’s birthday party is the cake, but if we’re telling kids that cake is ‘bad’, we’re setting them up to have a problematic and unhealthy relationship with it. They could even start to fear certain types of food, or conversely, see restricted food as even more attractive. Anyone who’s been on a diet will know that when you can’t eat something, you tend to think about it even more. Also, it’s important to recognise that every type of movement is valid; kids don’t have to be doing HIIT workouts to get moving. Something they actually enjoy doing is far more beneficial – different things feel good for different people, and if it does feel good, they’re more likely to do it. It’s also important to neutralise the word ‘fat’. It carries negative meaning in our culture and is often used as an insult and conflated with other personality traits like being lazy or greedy. In actual fact, fat is a neutral, descriptive word, like ‘tall’ or ‘short’. If you hear a child use that word as an insult, you should approach the conversation by saying “All bodies are good bodies and we don’t use that word as an insult. We don’t comment on other people’s bodies, it’s not our business.” If you immediately tell them off for using the word ‘fat’ that just reinforces the idea that fat is bad. There’s nuance to this, but small children can understand the difference and it can encourage them to call it out in the playground and be advocates for others.

In that case, how can you encourage your child to have a good relationship with food?

There’s a model called ‘The Division of Responsibility in Feeding’ created by nutritionists which provides a good framework for parents to follow. In the model, some jobs are parents’ jobs, and some belong to the kids – it’s up to the adult to provide the food and decide when and where you’re going to eat, while the kids decide if and how much they’re going to eat. As soon as you start nagging kids about finishing their food, or eating all their vegetables, you’re creating moral judgement around food and putting it into a hierarchy – they’re also less likely to do it and it can create conflict at mealtimes (which in some cases, can cause food issues in children.) The Division of Responsibility neutralises this. It might sound counterintuitive, but it’s also important to give your children access to foods you might not necessarily want them to eat because if they’re never allowed to eat sweets, cake or chocolate, when they do inevitably get access to them, they won’t know how to handle it. What we’re aiming for is a long-term healthy relationship with food, both in the home and once they’ve left, too.

Tell us about the power of family mealtimes?

Children learn through role modelling and look to the people around them. So, if you’re eating together as a family, and you’re eating a wide range of foods, your child is more likely to be exposed to more foods, and they will see you eating it, even if they don’t eat if themselves. Ultimately, the increased exposure is good for them, and they will be more likely to try new things. Family mealtimes are also important because it creates a feeling of community and togetherness – a sense of belonging and feeling connected with other people is a huge part of a child’s wellbeing. In a conflict-free environment, eating together, even just a few times a week, is a great opportunity for children to share their experiences of their day, and any worries they might have. Doing this every day, especially if you have a demanding work schedule might not be realistic, but even two or three times a week will be incredibly beneficial.

In your opinion, why are eating disorders on the rise?

Eating disorders are incredibly complex conditions, but they’re often about control, and food is one of the few things children can assert autonomy over. We know that in the last decade, the number of tweens getting anorexia has doubled and one in three teenage girls in the UK currently has some form of eating disorder. It’s difficult to say exactly why that is, but in my opinion, the huge focus on thinness and the focus on the ‘obesity epidemic’ has undoubtedly contributed to the number of cases. Also, constant talk about weight can have a huge effect on children, especially when adults refer to things like ‘losing the lockdown pounds’ or ‘bouncing back’ after having a baby. Unfortunately, social media has contributed to the issue, too. It can be a very positive tool, but it can also be negative, especially for young children.

What are some of the early signs of body-image concerns in children?

They can show up in lots of different ways. It might be something as explicit as saying that they don’t like their body or saying: ‘I can’t wear that’ or ‘My tummy is too big’. It could also present itself in the language they use – for example, using the word ‘fat’ as an insult, or saying they want to look like their favourite TV star our YouTuber. These kinds of red flags can be very telling, so it’s important to let your children know they can come to you if they are having negative feelings. Anxiety is also on the rise in young children, and when they are feeling worried or upset about something, it can be taken out on their bodies. It’s important to remember that negative body image can be linked with eating disorders, but that doesn’t mean that a child with a low body image will go on to develop one.

Constant talk about weight can have a huge effect on children, especially when adults refer to things like ‘losing the lockdown pounds’ or ‘bouncing back’ after having a baby.

So, what role is social media playing in all of this?

In my experience, older generations are quick to blame these issues on social media. Of course, it has a part of play, but we can’t blame it for everything. It can be a positive force for teenagers (who are old enough to be using it) and there is strong evidence to suggest that looking at body positive content online can make people feel better about themselves. It can also give kids the representation they might not see in other areas of their life – it opens up a new window and exposes them to other people who are living a happy life, but don’t necessarily have the body of a Disney princess. Social media is also good for giving teenagers some autonomy in what to share, who to follow and what to like. It’s not a black and white issue, and there are nuances at play.

Would you say the same is true of TV?

Yes. There are some great, educational TV shows for kids, but there are some problematic shows, too. However, it’s not helpful to think that reality TV and shows like Love Island shouldn’t exist. Instead, as a society, we have to collectively recognise how they can impact the way some people feel about their body. The irony is that if there was better awareness around these subjects and we neutralised words like ‘fat’, those types of shows probably wouldn’t be so problematic as we would view them for what they are – light-hearted entertainment. But because they exist in the culture that they do, it can make people, including children, feel bad about themselves.

Let’s talk about toys – how can they affect a child’s body image?

It’s unrealistic to say that kids shouldn’t play with Barbie dolls, in fact, by taking them away, you give them more power, in the same way that banning certain types of food can make them want it even more. Luckily, there are lots of toy manufacturers who are becoming more aware of the importance of getting rid of gender stereotypes and certain types of bodies – Barbie comes in a range of shapes and sizes these days which is great. Encourage your children to become critical thinkers about what they’re playing with, too, and open up the conversation. Toys are so important because children see the world through them. When buying toys, it’s good to be mindful, and ensure your child has a range of different types to play with – toy swapping and going to toy libraries is a great way to do this.

If you’re worried about your child’s weight, how should you approach the situation?

Most importantly, do not voice any concerns to your child. The best way to raise a body happy child is for them to feel loved and accepted just as they are. As soon as we start voicing these concerns, even if it comes from a place of good intention, it can be hugely detrimental. Parents often feel a natural instinct to mould their children into being the same as everyone else, but we need to be changing the culture around this, not our kids’ bodies. There are ways you can support their health, without conflating it with weight. Of course, if you are worried about a medical condition, take them to your local GP, but keep in mind that health presents itself in lots of different ways and raising kids who are good humans, who treat others with care and respect is far more important than seeing a certain number on the scales.

Body Happy Kids by Molly Forbes is published by Ebury Publishing and is available to buy from Waterstones, and other retailers. Follow @MollyJForbes on Instagram.

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