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Reality Check: Encouraging a Positive Body Image


Q  Recently I was shocked to hear my daughter's preschool friends talking about who's thin and who's not. How can I protect her from negative attitudes about food and weight?

A I witnessed something like this one day when Madeline was about 4 and had a preschool friend over for lunch. Madeline polished off her sandwich, fruit, and pretzels in her usual workmanlike manner, while the friend picked at her plate. "You're a piggy," observed the little girl, "because you ate all your lunch." When I saw that Madeline was starting to get the drift of the comment, I stepped in and explained to both girls that people should eat when they're hungry and not eat when they're not hungry, and that piggy was a good name for a bank.

The notion that thin is the only way to be and that dieting is a normal way to live is infiltrating the minds of younger and younger girls and boys, according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of education, prevention, and outreach at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center.

I'm doing what I can to offset our culture's obsession with weight, and undereating and overeating. But it's amazing how much children absorb when they leave home, even for just a few hours a day. Some suggestions from Steiner-Adair for raising kids with normal eating habits and a good body image:

Enforce a no-teasing rule about appearance and eating habits  -- in and out of the home. Talk to teachers or mothers of other children if you know your child is being harassed or made to feel bad about her body.

Avoid tossing out platitudes to comfort your child if she's worried about her weight. "Don't just say, 'Of course you're not fat, honey,'" says Steiner-Adair. Explain that other people's ideas about how much food to eat and appropriate weight are opinions, not necessarily facts.

  • Go out of your way to encourage friendships with children who seem to be open-minded about people's appearances, and discourage those with kids who don't.
  • Be aware of your child's television viewing, and counter negative messages about body image by encouraging her to talk about what she's seeing and reminding her that television does not usually portray a diversity of shapes and sizes.
  • Don't be a food cop: Encourage healthy eating, but be relaxed about food at home.
  • And lastly, don't ever say anything bad about your own body in front of your child.