Monday Medical: Positive body image begins early for children
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Some alarming statistics: More than half of American girls have negative feelings about their body, a number that grows to nearly 80 percent by their high school years. Even more disturbing are recent studies that show children as young as kindergarten worry about their body weight and appearance.
Growing up in a world where children, especially girls, have been bombarded with messages that they’re not pretty or thin enough can take a big toll on their health, child experts say. As students return to school this fall, parents need to pay attention to how children feel about their bodies.
“Body image and how children feel about their body starts at a young age, and a lot of it comes from them hearing how their parents talk about their own bodies,’’ said Sheila Fountain, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Your child is listening to what you say, so be kind to yourself.”
Insecurity and middle school usually go hand-in-hand
Middle school is where many of these issues surrounding negative body image emerge. And during the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic, providers have seen an increase in anxiety, depression and eating disorders as adolescents and teens try to gain a sense of order in a world where they see themselves having little control.
“This is such a unique time in their lives,” Fountain said. “Their bodies are changing, and they just don’t see themselves as good enough. Insecurities affect boys and girls and can be related to weight, shape, height, hair and skin.”
Fountain advises parents to pay attention to their child’s eating and exercise habits, in addition to their moods and daily interactions with family and friends. If parents are worried that their child’s behavior has gone beyond normal puberty or adolescent moodiness, she recommended reaching out to a pediatrician or therapist for support.
For families struggling to navigate through these difficult years and trying to instill body positivity with girls and boys, there are steps to take to encourage good habits.
- Language is important and words matter. Instead of emphasizing the number of calories that food contains, shift the conversation to eating healthy for a strong body.
- Focus on overall health. “Keep the attention on a child’s whole health – including mental health, spiritual health and physical health,” said Fountain. “That means not just what a child is eating, but how she’s sleeping, how he’s exercising, how his mood is, how she is interacting with family and friends.”
- Encourage healthy habits. Fountain said that while growing up in Steamboat offers an outdoors lifestyle that has many positive aspects, it can also be intimidating for children to grow up surrounded by world-class athletes, especially if they don’t excel at sports.
“Instead of putting attention on physical abilities, talk about work ethic, commitment, perseverance. And it doesn’t have to be sports – it can be band, dance, robotics, a foreign language, anything that a child enjoys and makes them feel good about themself.”
- Limit time on social media and screen time to two hours per day. Social media inundates children with unrealistic expectations and unhealthy role models that are impossible, and even dangerous, to live up to. Monitor phone apps and where children are getting their news.
“It’s the filtered truth. It’s not realistic,” said Fountain. “Having a lot of conversations about social media is vital.”
Celebrate inner beauty
Creating different and diverse communities where children regularly receive positive input and encouragement is key, whether it be through organized activities, sports or extracurricular events with extended family, teachers, coaches and neighbors.
“Seek friends who make you feel good about yourself – people who help you find your sense of belonging, that make you feel worthy,” Fountain said.
And adults should stress that real beauty comes from practicing kindness and being genuine.
“Let’s take the focus off looks and put it on being heathy and feeling comfortable with who you are,” Fountain said. “We want kids to say, ‘I am worthy, I am good enough,’ and celebrate differences.”
Mary Gay Broderick writes for UCHealth. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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