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Raising a Child With a Healthy Body Image

by Janet Goldstein-Ball, LMFT

During an eating disorder assessment the clinician usually asks the patient several questions regarding their feelings about their bodies. What do they think is their ideal weight? Does their feelings about their bodies prevent them from participating in any life activities? Are there any body parts they especially obsess about and dislike? At what age did they start having negative feelings about their body? A common answer to this last question goes something like this:

“I think it was when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I was taking ballet, and was really enjoying it. I loved the movement and the music. But then one day I remember being in class and looking at myself in my pink leotard in the mirror. I noticed that I looked a little rounder than the other students. The other girls were all taller and skinnier than me. I was short and chubby, with a pot belly. I remember in that moment feeling shame about my body. After the class, I told my mother I didn’t want to go to ballet anymore, but I didn’t tell her why. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Okay.” That was the end of it. She never asked me why I wanted to quit. My brother was still a baby and I think she was relieved to have one less responsibility.”

How is it that a 5 – 6 year old girl goes from enjoying expressing herself through dance to being so self-conscious about her body that she quits the class? Where did she get the idea that being thin is more desirable, and being rounder is a defect? As it turns out, her mother carried a couple of extra pounds, but was still a very beautiful woman. She loved food, but also was a constant dieter who kept an ample stock of diet sodas and diet shakes in the refrigerator. The mother also had a scale in her bathroom, which she weighed herself on almost every day. At a tender young age, had the girl already picked up on her mother’s own discomfort with her body and the pressure she felt from society to be slim?

Perhaps the girl had also seen ads on TV about weight loss products and exercise programs, promoting the “thin ideal” as the way to happiness and fulfilment. Maybe she had seen the cruel “before” pictures of over-weight women, and the “after” pictures of model slim women beaming with wide smiles about how wonderful their lives were now that they had lost those pesky extra pounds. In addition, maybe the girl had already been teased, even bullied, at school for being chubby.

Most likely it was not the mother’s intention to make her daughter ashamed of her body, and we don’t want to immediately blame the mother as the sole cause of what would later become a full-blown eating disorder. As clinicians we know that there is rarely one root cause of an eating disorder, and usually no one person in our patient’s past to blame. Nevertheless, let’s examine what the mother could have done differently to prevent, or at least post-pone, the daughter starting to hate and disconnect from her body at such a young age.

When working with families that have a child with an eating disorder, we often ask the parents to look at their own feelings about their bodies, their beliefs about diet and thinness, and whether they buy into certain societal messages we receive on a daily basis about how we “should” look. The parenting books all tell us that children absorb what they see us doing and what they hear us saying. They pick up on the parents’ feelings about themselves. So if you are a parent with negative feelings about your body, who is openly dieting and trying to lose weight, you might want to think about what this is telling your son or daughter about themselves.

Finally, should the mother have let the daughter quit her ballet class so easily? It is understandable that a harried mother might be relieved to have one less chore (taking her daughter to her dance class) during the week. But what if she had asked her child why she wanted to quit? What if the daughter had responded “I’m fatter than the other girls. It makes me feel bad.” That would have opened up an opportunity for a discussion about how people are meant to be all sizes and shapes. Also, that whatever size and shape you are, you are special and have value as a human being, and are allowed to express yourself through movement and dance.