Researchers have long known that when parents tease a child about gaining weight or push her to diet, it can have serious consequences and could even lead to eating disorders or depression. But recently they’ve turned their attention to indirect influence, also known as modeling, which sends just as clear a message about what’s an “acceptable” body type. A 2012 study published in the journal Body Image found that when parents do things like constantly talking about calories and carbs at dinner or fretting over how fat they look in jeans, their kids are more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies, no matter what their weight or size. “Modeling has a strong influence on a child’s behaviors and beliefs,” says psychologist and study coauthor Brian Fisak, Ph.D. “Although modeling can come from a number of sources, parents may be the most influential, especially in preschool and elementary school.”
That’s the good news. You are a powerful influence—maybe even more so than Elsa or Taylor Swift! “We’re the ones teaching our daughters what it means to be an adult woman,” says Charlotte Markey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, in Camden, New Jersey, and the author of Smart People Don’t Diet. Here’s the catch, though: “The message you’re giving them when you complain about your body is that there is a very high bar to be considered perfect,” says Markey.
If you’ve struggled all your life with weight issues, it’s not easy to magically improve your inner or outer dialogue, even for the sake of your kids. Need a good reason to start? According to the National Eating Disorders Association, girls start being aware of dieting and body types by first grade, and about 50 percent of all girls between 6 and 12 say that they’re worried about their weight or becoming too fat.
Here’s how to set the right tone.
Fake it at first. Even if you have long-standing issues that feel like old friends (hello, saggy breasts), try not to share them. “If you look in the mirror and think, I look like a beached whale in this outfit!, don’t say it out loud, and don’t make a face,” says blogger Dara Chadwick, the author of You’d Be So Pretty If.... Your child can’t read your mind, and if you can catch yourself before the negativity slips out, you’re a step ahead. “My mom was very self-deprecating,” says Chadwick. “When we’d go into a store, she’d say, ‘Just point me toward the tents!’ As I got older and started to look more like her, I was very aware that my body wasn’t good enough.”
Give yourself a daily compliment. Your kid thinks you’re awesome; agree with her. It’s important for your child to hear you say positive things about yourself that are unrelated to looks or weight. Even more important, says Leslie Sim, Ph.D., the clinical director of the eating-disorders program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is that you struggle with things and persist when life isn’t perfect. (“I had a bad day, but I didn’t let it ruin my week.”) Encountering difficulty, whether in a crossword puzzle or a CrossFit workout, and putting in the effort to finish, whatever the outcome, is empowering for you and your kids.
And accept other people’s compliments with grace. When a friend says, “You look great” and you respond with “Ugh, are you kidding? I feel so bloated,” you’re sending the message that no matter what anyone else says, you can never be satisfied with your own looks. “By deflecting compliments, you teach that the proper response is self-criticism instead of self-acceptance,” says Markey. A simple and gracious “thank you,” without any qualifiers, can work wonders.
Never say “fat.” Or “chubby,” “chunky,” or “flabby.” And while you’re at it, strike out “diet,” “calories,” and “carbs.” Besides boring everyone at the dinner table to tears, constantly discussing good and bad carbs or whether chicken fingers are allowed on the paleo diet will probably backfire, leading to less healthy eating habits, says the research from the University of Minnesota. There shouldn’t be much talk about the food at all during the meal, other than how delicious it is. That doesn’t mean you can never try out a new diet. Just don’t make a big deal about it, and don’t tie it to weight loss, says Markey. If your child notices that you’re not putting any pasta on your plate, say, “I’m trying some different foods that will give me energy to do things I love, like playing tennis.”
Rethink how you talk about others. Kids aren’t blind. They notice a variety of body types, just as they’ll notice a range of skin colors, and you should treat these differences in a similarly respectful way: “You’re right. People come in all shapes and sizes. It makes the world an interesting place.” When you run into an old friend you haven’t seen in a while or spot a new actress on your favorite TV show, avoid the temptation to comment on her weight. “If your child hears you making comments about a person’s size, she assumes that everyone says those things, and the next leap of logic is that people are making those judgments about her,” says Sim. Talk instead about the things that you want your child to value: “It was great to see Jennifer today. She’s a really good listener.”
Get in the pool, no matter how awkward you feel in a swimsuit. Holding yourself back from doing things you enjoy because you don’t like your body can have a huge impact on kids, says Markey. Your children are watching you. Don’t skip the fun stuff just because you don’t look “perfect.”