Developing Positive Body Image for Your Family

Article Contributor: Rachel Porter, PsyD

barefoot-414385_640We’ve heard it a lot- family is important. Family meals! Family together time! Family game night! Friends are the Family You Choose! And here’s the thing: that is really true. Family is a hugely important part of life.

Family is also highly influential- from the moment we are born, our family (whether by biology or adoption or even by government intervention) helps develop our beliefs, our values- our general ways of living.

One area of this development that is often looked at from an individual standpoint, but actually has strong family influences, is body image. Children learn a great deal about how to interact with and view their own bodies from their caregivers, and how a family approaches things like the importance of appearance and size can stay with a child as she goes through life.

No Shame, No Blame

First and foremost, I must be clear: parents do not cause negative body image or related issues. Additionally, parents do not need to be perfect in their own body image- it is unfair to expect such a thing.

What I want to encourage through this article is an increased level of awareness in ways that anyone reading this (parent or not) can elevate the positive body image experiences of your family. The first step in that is to acknowledge any areas in which you (no matter your role in the family) could benefit from change.

  • Do you stand in front of the mirror to criticize your reflection?
  • Or perhaps you change clothes multiple times each morning?
  • Do you make comments about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” eat based on how you perceive your body?
  • Do you plan your exercise and movement based on what your food intake is?
  • Do you make comment on the appearance of others?

These are examples of things that may be influencing the body image experience of not just you, but of your whole family. And if step one is to be aware of this, step two is to eliminate judgment and move forward. I cannot count the number of times I have started family therapy and the first things a parent says are words of guilt, regret, shame, and self-blame.

You Are Not to Blame for an Eating Disorder

mother-10516_640I started trying to head them off at the pass, providing education and reassurance, and encouraging them to stop spending so much time in the Land of Guilt and Shame. These parents would hear my words but kept going back to shame and guilt- until I reiterated the message of “no shame, no blame” in the next few family sessions.

Eventually, they seemed to trust this message and visibly relax- and then some really cool work could start.

So let me again say: your loved one’s body image issues are not your fault. Let go of that shame and guilt and blame. Trust that even if you have engaged in ineffective behaviors, you made the best decisions you had with the information available to you at the time. Now move on to make new choices with new information.

So What Can I Do?

A quick list of positive actions that can go a long way:

  1. Make well-rounded family meals a priority. And remember that all foods are allowed in a healthy diet- keep that “bad foods” list clear! Nothing belongs on it.
  2. Consider a “no food or body talk” rule at the table – spend your time together discussing what is truly important to you rather than what you “should” be eating or doing. It’s OK to talk with each other about your feelings for your bodies, and it’s important to make that happen in a safe place and separate from food.
  3. Play together! And make sure that how you play is inclusive to your entire family- the important thing is being together!
  4. Model a positive relationship with your own body. Show through your actions what it looks like to have body acceptance and respect. If you do comment on your body, comment on the things you love about it, or the things you appreciate that it can do.
  5. When another member of your family engages in negative body talk, try to gently redirect their language or commentary. For instance:

    Family Member A: “Ugh I can’t believe how big my thighs are, I can never wear shorts.”
    Family Member B: “Your thighs are really powerful and carry you around everywhere- I’m so impressed by all you can do! I hope you can let yourself be comfortable in shorts when it’s so hot out!”

  6. Make it clear that your appreciation of the people in your family has nothing to do with what their body looks like.

But What If My Family Member is Overweight?

I’m sure some of you have had a doctor tell you that a loved one of yours is overweight. For the purposes of this article, let’s say you’ve got a child that has been “diagnosed” as overweight – what do you do? Do the above suggestions apply?

The answer is simple and straightforward: Yes. Regardless of weight, the above principles (including the “all foods are good foods” principle) apply. Of course you want your child to be healthy. I encourage you to remember that health is multi-faceted, weight is only one tiny part of that, and that many individuals who live in big bodies are also quite healthy.

Yo-yo dieting and shame lead to bigger health problems that being overweight. Instead of focusing on weight, focus on an expansive view of health:

  • Support your child in getting active in a way that he or she finds really fun
  • Introduce a variety of foods to your child
  • Continue to give positive and loving messages to your kid

These factors will positively influence your child’s health much more than if you put him or her on a diet and exercise plan to force weight loss. Remember- bodies come in all shapes and sizes. And that’s as it should be.

About the Author:

Rachel Porter, PsyD:

Rachel Porter is Clinical Director at Carolina House’s Residential facility in Durham, NC. In 2005, while in graduate school, Rachel obtained a job as a Counselor at The Renfrew Center and discovered her passion for working with individuals with eating disorders.

Since then, she has worked tirelessly in the field of eating disorders and has developed a passion for the Health at Every Size paradigm and Size Acceptance movement. She strives to help people discover that self-love and health are not size dependent.

In her spare time, Rachel loves reading, yoga, hiking and spending time with her cat and her husband.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on November 1, 2014.
Reviewed, Updated & Approved on April 16, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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