How to talk to your kids about body image

As body image issues among children continue to climb, it’s never been more important for parents to step in early.

Last time Antonia* came over for dinner, she announced she was trying to get “swimsuit-ready” for her family holiday.

“Sorry, I can’t eat carbs or sugar,” she told me sheepishly as I produced grapes for a snack. “Mum says fruit is just sugar with better marketing.”

Are you ready for the rub? Antonia is just eight years old.

It’s the kind of story Christine Morgan, CEO of The Butterfly Foundation, hears all too often.

“We now know kids as young as four are being heavily influenced by conversations they’re overhearing about body image and the importance of appearance,” she says.

“And of course we see every day just how devastating the consequences can be.”

One paper has found a third of five-year-old girls display a moderate level of dietary restraint, while another has shown an increasing number of three to five-year-olds display body dissatisfaction.

Morgan says these figures are only set to increase. “We can’t protect our kids from the pressures of modern life, but we can certainly guide them,” she says.

Tailor your talk to your child

Always consider context and content before you speak, advises Morgan.

“You know your child better than anyone, so ask yourself when they’ll be more receptive to a chat, and what kind of language you need to use so that they’ll pay attention,” she says.

If your child makes a comment that can be linked to body image, you can either jump straight in or merely dip a toe.

“There’s no rule that says you have to have The Talk in one hit,” says Morgan. “You can also use it as a way to start a rolling dialogue in the house.”

Know what not to say

Thinking about introducing the topic of “good” and “bad” foods, or making comparisons with other people? Stop right there.

“Rather than labelling things in a negative way, try to remain objective in your talks and focus on the positive things our bodies can do and what a healthy body can look like,” she says.

Treat both sexes equally

It’s easy to overlook your rough and tumble son when you’re having these talks, but boys need to hear your words just as much as their sisters.

“Over the past decade, boys have begun buying into the idea that they have to look a certain way so they’re increasingly hitting the gym, playing around with diets and taking steroids to build that ripped muscle look,” she says.

Watch your own language

It’s one thing to try to say all the right things, but the rubber hits the road when it comes to how we act ourselves, says Morgan.

“If your children are constantly hearing, ‘mummy can’t eat that because mummy’s trying to lose weight’, or they’re seeing you groaning and swearing on the scales, they’re going to take it all on board.”

Never forget that the walls have ears (and eyes) and a very long memory – so act accordingly.

For help with eating disorders or body image concerns, call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (ED HOPE) or email [email protected]

The team at House of Wellness TV asked a group of parents and their children about tough life topics. Watch what they had to say

Written by Dilvin Yasa.