I could feed you the statistics saying that obesity, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are serious problems in our society*, but I think you already know it. Why? Because most of us know exactly how terrible it feels to feel bad about our body, to feel fat compared to others, to feel judged, obsessed, and anxious about everything we eat and everyone we see. Most of us at one point or another in our lives have tried some sort of unhealthy weight control behaviour, gotten stuck in a dieting-binge eating cycle, or found ourselves feeling depressed and ashamed because of how we look. We might not admit it openly, but we know.
Why do so many of us know this? Because we live in a “toxic environment”1 for body image and weight-related problems. We are constantly receiving cues to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods on TV, in the grocery store, while driving down the street and we are enabled to be as sedentary as possible with our cars, our escalators, and our ball throwers for our dogs. And yet, within this same environment that facilitates weight gain, we are bombarded with messages that we should be unrealistically thin and fit and everywhere we look we are surrounded with images of thinness that are associated with success, love, popularity, and happiness.
But again you already know all of this, why? Because we experience it everyday when we go on Facebook or Instagram. Before we clicked we felt fine but now we feel that sinking feeling in our gut and start thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not fit enough”, etc. We experience it when we’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we read the headlines of the magazines stating how this actress is now battling anorexia and how fat the other one’s butt looks in her bikini and how to lose our own belly fat in just 30 days! And what is all this obsessiveness for? So we can all continue to make the beauty & dieting & fast food industries prosper? So we can all spend inordinate amounts of time on our appearance and thinking about food? So we can all try to look the same? So we can all feel terrible about ourselves? I guess not, but we’re so used to it that many of us don’t even see that our environment is a problem, we blame ourselves instead for not being thin enough, tall enough, fit enough… we think we’ll feel better if we just “fit in”.
Maybe you want to change all of this for yourself. I hope so, because you deserve it. But, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that you don’t want your kids or kids you care about to feel the same way that you have. You want them to feel healthy and strong. You want them to feel confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their food choices, and about their uniqueness. You want them to take care of themselves, to trust themselves and to be free to be themselves, right?
So, what can we do to mitigate this toxic social environment that we live in so that our children can make healthy choices and feel good about themselves?
Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor, researcher and advocate in the field of obesity and eating disorder prevention has written a great book called “I’m, like, So fat!”2 on how to help our teens navigate eating and body image in this weight-obsessed world. It’s a super helpful read! Here are just a few pointers from the book:
1. Model healthy behaviours and healthy body talk.
a. Model healthy eating patterns, which means eating regularly and not skipping meals. Model healthy food choices, which means incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods. If you have trouble adhering to these guidelines due to your own eating preoccupations try to model healthy behaviours in front of your children. What they see you doing is what matters most for them.
b. Show your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods in moderation; this is a skill they need to have in this environment! When you have a piece of cake try to show them you appreciate it. Don’t say something like “oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this”. And if you choose not to opt for cake on an occasion, say something like “tonight my body feels like something more refreshing for dessert”, rather than “I’d love to but I can’t, I’m on a diet”.
c. Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Tell them something you’re grateful for about your body, for example “I’m so thankful that my legs are so strong, they helped me walk all the way to my meeting today”. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. For example find something positive to say about your wrinkles like how these lines show all the expressions your face has worn over the years. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.
d. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children.
2. Create a healthy environment at home.
a. Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand and, if possible, cut up and ready to go.
b. Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.
c. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, do it with them. Walking, biking, skiing, going to the park… Make physical activity part of family time together. Start wherever you can and try to make it fun!
3. Focus less on appearance, more on health.
a. Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of losing weight.
b. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for weight teasing or negative weight talk in your home. Help your children realize that weight teasing is not acceptable.
c. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.
4. Talk to them, and listen even more.
a. Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their weight concerns. Empathize with them, you can even tell them you know how difficult it is to feel “fat” or less attractive than your peers for one reason or another. We all feel like this sometimes.
b. When your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions. Let them know that you’re always there to listen.
c. Let your child know that you love them no matter what their size, shape, and appearance. That you love them just as they are. Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive force for them!
Come to our workshop in March if you want to talk more about how you can try your best to be a positive influence for your children in our toxic environment. And follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology if you want to join the conversation before that!
Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
1Dr. Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of the World Food Policy Center
2I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.
World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet, Updated October 2017
Project EAT studies can be found here: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/#EAT1
Becker A.E et al., Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, The British Journal of Psychiatry Jun 2002, 180 (6) 509-514.
*If you’d like statistics here are a few from the World Health Organization as well as studies by Dr. Anne Becker in Fiji and Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project EAT:
Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.
Globally rates of childhood overweight and obesity have risen from 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.
Project EAT, a large multi-site study of 4700 adolescents in the United States, found that:
- Almost half of girls and one fourth of boys were highly dissatisfied with their bodies and that body dissatisfaction contributed to a plethora of problems like unhealthy dieting, binge eating, depression, and weight gain over time.
- Girls who read magazine articles about dieting/weight loss were six times more likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviours (like vomiting, diet pills). Boys who read the articles were four times as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours.
- Adolescents with a bedroom television reported more television viewing time, less physical activity, poorer dietary habits, fewer family meals, and poorer school performance.
When Fiji got television in 1995, vomiting for weight control purposes went from 0-11% among girls over a three-year period, eating pathology more than doubled and girls living in households with a television were more than three times as likely to have high eating pathology.