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Body Stigma in Childhood years

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Obesity and restrictive eating patterns...

As we know, obesity within the pediatric population is on the rise. However, there is also an increase in body dysmorphia and restrictive eating patterns among young populations. If we stop and think--- we realize that there is no way this is simply a coincidence.

As many health care providers preach 'healthy BMIs' and restrictive weight loss---the public is becoming increasingly more concerned with body image.

Research has indeed proven that there are risks and health concerns that usually go hand-in-hand with high weight individuals. However, body image stigmas and issues have erupted due to an overwhelming fear of high weight/BMI scores. The media has created a normally unattainable perfect body that many individuals constantly strive to reach.

Unfortunately, the negative side-effects that are following this perfect body include negative relationships with food. These negative relationships are commonly found in parents and are then passed on to their child who need not to worry about their size and appearance.

Our young populations...

Children are constantly growing and experiencing changes in their body --- ranging form appearance to hormonal function, etc. Because of these dramatic changes that are always occurring, children should be taught to be intuitive about their actual energy (calorie) needs/intake.

Intuitive Eating:

Intuitive eating is a principle commonly taught by Dietitians due to its non-restrictive, however effective nature. Intuitive eating allows the individual freedom to decide if their body is hungry (therefore eats more) or full (making the decision to stop eating). Sounds pretty simple, right?

Every child is born with the innate ability to intuitively eat. It is the role of the parents to allow the skill to grow and flourish throughout the course of their childhood. That being said, this innate skill will 'turn off' if overridden by negative reinforcement, dieting, chronic hunger, forced over consumption at social events etc.

Society puts an unimaginable pressure on the importance of body size and overall appearance. Because of this --- research has shown that preschoolers as well as elementary school aged children are more dissatisfied with their bodies than ever before. Children are now associating 'heavy' as bad and 'thin' as good. There is a lack of understanding that all bodies are meant to look different and that the look of an individual has little to do with their actual health.

Make sure to sit down for this one...

Did you know--- one-third of 5 year old's are restricting what they eat. Let us say that again: 5 year old children are telling their bodies 'No' to adequate nutrition!

Restrictive eating patterns put children at risk for developing depression, nutritional deficiencies, and eating disorders as they mature.

Studies have also shown 1 in 3 female and 1 in 8 male high school students have eating disorders so severe they require medical treatment. A truly unacceptable statistic.

The question is...

How do we tackle the obesity crisis in the United States without causing an equally terrible epidemic of disordered eating?

Psychologists, eating disorder specialists, and various other qualified health professionals have agreed upon a few ways to avoid weight stigma while promoting a healthy relationship with food/one's self.

We have listed a few below:

1. Never comment on your child's weight, even if you are trying to be helpful---it comes off as negative. Even if your child is underweight, they may become self conscious and create negative images of themselves.

2. If you are concerned about your child's weight, do not single them out and create a restrictive diet plan. Set 'family health goals' that work to achieve wellness in all family members--- as opposed to only your child. This will not only promote sustainable healthy habits for your child, but for your entire family.

3. Do not label foods as 'good' or 'bad.' This puts unneeded stress on what your child eats leading them to feel either 'good' or 'bad' when they eat the specified food. Your body will break down all foods and use each component as some form of energy, therefore it is unnecessary to stress about all nutritional intake if you and your child are eating an 'overall' balanced diet.

4. Be positive towards yourself! Just as you know your child is perfect, to your child, you are the best mom/dad out there! Do not be afraid to exude your own confidence! If you love the way you look, or at least verbalize you do to your child, they are significantly less likely to look for things that are wrong with themselves.

5. Of course all children will have questions and concerns regarding their body that you must answer as a parent. However, instead of focusing on body image, focus on what the body can do! Our bodies have so many capabilities such as--- singing, dancing, sports, writing, thinking, etc. The list goes on and on!

6. Lastly, communicate with your child about weight stigma if they are mature enough to understand the concept. They will inevitably come into contact with body centered media/advertising; however parent child communication regarding the subject can better help them prepare/deal with its negativity.

In conclusion...

The only way to help ensure your child grows up learning to love their body is if YOU show them by example. Just like any other topic---do not be afraid to talk to your child about the weight stigma in our society. The more you openly talk to your child without judgement, the more they will feel comfortable sharing with you their most difficult thoughts (such as problems with personal body positivity).

"Embrace and love your body; it is the most amazing gift you will ever own..." -Unknown

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Cassie and Mikayla

Mamas Maternal Health Dietitians/Lactation Counselors

Reference: Melinda Wenner Moyer (2019)., How to Make Kids Comfortable in Their Own Bodies., Slate https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/01/child-body-image-advice-weight-shaming.html

Photo by Brittany Simuangco on Unsplash

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