Healthy Body Image for Our Children

6 comments | February 17th, 2011

(submitted by Guest Contributer Janna Dean via C. Jane Enjoy It)

This week I sat in a conference listening to a presentation about body image that revealed one of the most horrifying statistics I’ve heard on the subject.  The presenter stated that “14% of 5-year-old girls diet.”  I was stunned.  I am stunned.  I know our culture is unrealistic in its expectations—impossible even.  I know we have an “obesity epidemic” on our hands.  I know we have serious distortions about what it means to be healthy…But dieting at 5 years old?!
For a long moment I was unable to focus on the presentation and instead thought of my own wonderful, brave, mischievous, innocent little 4-year-old daughter (turning 5 this April).  I felt saddened by the world she is exposed to despite my attempts to shelter her.   And then my thoughts turned to her twin brother who is similarly victimized by our world (as is his 17-year-old cousin who has indeed lost himself and his dreams to the world of body building and supplements).
5-year-olds are not afraid of being “fat” because of health concerns; they are afraid of being fat because they have already learned that this word is not only a description of one’s body but one’s character and worth.  This is not something they intuitively believe—they learn it through observation of the media, peers, and adults who are supposed to protect them.
Take for instance the research that shows children (and adults) would rather lose an arm than be fat.  And studies that show young girls are more afraid of being fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing both parents.  These children are growing up to become young women who would rather be run over by a truck than be extremely fat and who are reporting they would rather be mean or stupid than fat.  
42% of American 1st to 3rd grade girls surveyed want to be thinner than they are.  (6 to 8 years old!) And one half of 9 to 10-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.
50% of 9-year-old girls diet.
80% of 10-year-old girls diet.
90% of high school girls diet regularly—while only 20% of them have BMI’s that might be viewed as concerning. 
These are not girls who “need” to diet—remember, diets don’t even work.  These are kids who have learned to be so afraid of being fat that being a normal or average weight isn’t even acceptable anymore.  We wonder how this has happened to our children but fail to recognize we expect the same impossible standards for ourselves.
We have become so lost in the body-obsessed world that we are now leading our children down the same path of discouragement, depression, and self-loathing we are following while teaching them it is the way to happiness and love!  We are so lost that we don’t recognize what is wrong with measuring our worth by the wrong scale.  We don’t recognize how we make continual moral judgments about others based on their body shape.  We don’t recognize the destructiveness of the messages we send when we have or pay for our children to have breast implants, tummy tucks, or plastic surgery.  We fail to question the belief that we are worth more if we are smaller. 
I understand that more Americans are obese than ever before.  I understand that health risks are associated with obesity.  But I do not believe continued emphasis on weight loss and dieting is the answer.  There is a direct correlation between the amount of dieting one does and the amount of depression one experiences.  Allowing disparaging remarks about your body or your children’s bodies is harmful.  Children who are teased by peers are 36% more likely to consider suicide than their counterpart and children who are teased by peers and parents are 51% more likely to consider suicide. 
Children are fed so full of this glamour and dieting propaganda that they need our help to sort through it. 
I cannot nor should I keep my children in a bubble.  I cannot keep them from the messages that bombard them.  But I can teach them to think critically.  I can arm them with truth.  I can model self acceptance and I can create a safe haven—a place where they can talk and be heard, a place where they can question, scrutinize and still find acceptance.    
You can too.
  1. Encourage balanced eating of all types of foods in moderation; encourage eating in response to body hunger. 
  2. Get active as a family (not to lose weight but to use and enjoy your body—moderate exercise increases self-esteem and helps to lift depression).
  3. Speak up when you hear family members making comments about a person’s body shape or weight—don’t allow this kind of talk in your home (even from grandparents).
  4. Encourage and model critical thinking of messages we are exposed to.
  5. Do not dismiss comments from your children about their bodies.  Allow them to talk about it; ask questions; have conversations.  Simply telling someone they “look great” or “don’t need to lose weight” will not change how they feel about themselves.  But it will encourage them to stop talking to you about it.   
  6. Examine and if necessary, modify the appearance expectations you have about your own child. 
  7. Work toward openly loving and accepting your own body.  In doing this, you will give your children permission to do the same.  On the other hand, if you refuse to accept your own body, your children will receive the message that they must look a certain way to be loveable.  

Here's something to think about as well:
 "You can't control or dictate the quantity of food your child eats, and you shouldn't try. You also can't control or dictate the kind of body your child develops, and you shouldn't try. What you can do, and it is a great deal, is set things up for your child so she, herself, can regulate her food intake as well as possible, and so she can develop a healthy body that is constitutionally right for her."   Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter

Janna Dean LCSW is a practicing therapist specializing in treating eating disorders and other addictions. She is the mother of two four-year-olds, loves camping and making cookies for her neighbors. Her neighbors really appreciate it. Cause they are good cookies.


  • Natalie

    Posted on February 17, 2011

    I grew up in the South, where portions are huge and obesity is the norm. We were given four times as much food as we needed for every meal and told to finish every bite. When you are a little girl in that environment, you see Britney Spears on TV and obesity on all of the grownups around you and think…’I don’t want to become that.’ And honestly, Britney Spears was healthy (physically). The adults around me were not. Having been outside of that environment now for 10 years, I’ve developed seriously healthy eating habits that don’t require any dieting and yet I feel better about myself than I ever have. To me, then, the problem is these eating habits. Few people can eat the way I was raised to eat and maintain a healthy weight. I think, yes, it’s terrible that girls look around and see 80 lb. models everywhere and think they need to look like that, but I also think if healthy diets and exercise were more widespread people would naturally feel better about themselves.

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  • Crystal

    Posted on February 17, 2011

    Children and adults would rather lose an arm than be fat? What are we doing to ourselves and each other?

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  • OOC

    Posted on February 17, 2011

    It’s stats like those here in Janna’s piece (thanks again, Janna and CJane!!) that lead us to starting Off Our Chests. They are SO FUCKING CRAZY.

    Whether you have kids, might have kids, will never have kids, don’t even like kids…that there isn’t more outrage about how our girls are feeling about themselves is, well, it’s outrageous. But hey, let’s talk more about who’s gonna wear what on the Red Carpet…that’s what really matters. Or whether LiLo’s going to jail. That’ll make for a better world, no?

    Ok, we can get a little riled up, and the fact is we’ll be watching to see who’s wearing what on Sunday, and we’ll also be coming to our own opinions on how they look. That’s the truth. But the truth also is there’s some really crazy things being propagated and sold and set in cultural stone that are good for very few and bad for very many.

    Wanting to look good is good. But maybe we shouldn’t be so culturally rigid about what looking good means. What do you think?

    And while looking good is good, wanting to feel good is even better. Looking good can be a means to that end…but it’s not always. And looking like you…two thumbs up on that.

    We love this whole post but in particular we’re loving this:

    “I cannot nor should I keep my children in a bubble. I cannot keep them from the messages that bombard them. But I can teach them to think critically. I can arm them with truth. I can model self acceptance and I can create a safe haven—a place where they can talk and be heard, a place where they can question, scrutinize and still find acceptance.

    You can too.”

    And you can. And we hope you do. And if there’s anything we can do @OOC to help you do it – you let us know. It is, in short, why we exist. Or, to get all fancy on ya, it’s our raison d’etre. Au revoir, mes amores (did we spell that right? don’t think so, but hey, we’re flawed.)

    Xo, OOC

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  • Tracey

    Posted on February 17, 2011

    5 year-olds dieting!??? That’s HORRIFYING.

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  • CK

    Posted on February 17, 2011

    I think modeling self-acceptance is huge. So many of us hate on our bodies, or our noses, or our hair…or whatever it is in front of our children. That’s a terrible message to be sending, particularly when they are inheriting at least some of those traits.

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  • Kendra

    Posted on February 22, 2011

    I would like to see more of whatever study this fact came from. It’s not that I don’t believe the statistic. It’s that I would like to know things such as: Did these five-year-olds put themselves on diets or were they put on diets by their parents and/or doctors? Also, what percentage of these girls are actually overweight? It’s easy to see this statistic and feel gobsmacked but I wish that someone had intervened for me when I was ten. If they had then I might have learned how to eat healthily and how to obtain and maintain a healthy body image.

    I understand that some five-year-olds are putting themselves on diets or are being wrongly put on diets by their parents or guardians but %14 seems like a number that probably encompasses children who need to learn healthy eating and the proper way to maintain their diet.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t an issue here with teaching girls unhealthy habits to achieve impossible bodies but I also think that the statistic is being used a bit sensationally and there is no way to really know one way or the other without the other information that would have been involved in that study.

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