A Healthy Body Image Starts at Home: How to Lose Weight Without Harming Your Child’s Self-Esteem

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  • Your own body image plays an instrumental role in shaping your child’s body image. 
  • When embarking on a weight loss journey, it’s critical to consider how your behavior and words may be impacting the body image of your child. 
  • Shifting the focus from appearance, avoiding labeling foods as “good” and “bad,” and involving your child in food prep are a few tips for protecting your child’s self-esteem. 

As a mom, you play an instrumental role in shaping your children's beliefs and attitudes, including how they perceive their own bodies. 

Unbeknownst to many, our own body image directly affects our children's body image in significant ways. This connection can have an impact on their self-esteem and overall well-being during childhood, adolescence, and beyond.   

Losing weight often begins with a sense of dissatisfaction with your body either in how it looks or how it’s functioning. That’s perfectly ok. This dissatisfaction can be the spark that incites positive, healthy changes in your life. 

But if you’re a parent, it’s important to take care with how you express that body dissatisfaction and how you talk about a weight loss journey to protect the developing self-esteem of your little ones. The way you talk about yourself is the way they learn to talk about themselves.

Read on to gain insights, expert advice, and actionable tips to lose weight with confidence while supporting your child’s growing self-esteem.

What is Body Image?

Body image is a complex and multifaceted concept that encompasses how we perceive our own bodies, as well as how we believe others perceive us. It's not just about physical appearance; it's a deeply ingrained perception that can impact our self-esteem, mental health, and overall well-being.

Research shows that your body image begins to develop in your very early childhood. Children as young as three years old begin to make judgment calls based on someone’s body composition. These beliefs are influenced in part by our parents’ attitudes toward weight along with other factors such as cultural standards, peer comparisons, and personal experiences. 

This complex interplay of influences can shape how we see ourselves and how we believe we are perceived by others. It's essential to recognize that body image is subjective, and what one person considers ideal may differ significantly from another's perspective.

The Surprising Connection Between Self-Acceptance and Weight Loss

How Your Own Body Image Shapes Your Child's Body Image

A mother's body image plays a crucial role in shaping her child's perception of themselves, especially in the case of daughters

“Our children are very aware of our words and actions. Our words impact and can actually become their thoughts,” says Wendy Schofer, MD, pediatrician, lifestyle physician, and founder of Family in Focus: The Weight Coach for Your Whole Family. “When we say, ‘I'm fat,’ our kids think, ‘Am I fat too?’ When we say, ‘I need to lose weight,’ our kids can think, ‘I guess it's better to be skinny, so I'm going to try to be skinny too.’”

When we speak poorly of ourselves in front of our children, yet want them to have positive body images, we’re asking them to “do as I say, not as I do,” essentially to love themselves when we’re demonstrating anything but self-love. Even if she showers her children with affirmations and compliments, if a mother displays self-critical behavior, her child may internalize those negative thoughts, potentially leading to their own self-doubt and insecurities.

“Having the mother view herself as someone who is not fulfilled or not beautiful because of their weight can really set into motion the idea that self-worth is equated with external beauty,” says Yelena Wheeler, MPH, RDN

On one end of the spectrum, a mother’s negative self-talk can cause her child to view their own body in a negative way. At the extreme end, one research study shows that mothers’ comments about body size is linked to disordered eating among their children. 

Begin with Yourself

One of the best ways to foster body positivity at home and build your child’s body image is to start with yourself. The way you speak about your own body is powerful. Your children will learn a lot about their own worth through what they see and hear at home.

“We are our kids' environment,” says Schofer. “We can impact them by making body-critical remarks and we can help them by learning how to become more accepting of our own bodies. We can't tell our children how to have a better body image if we aren't creating a better one for ourselves first.”

Children absorb and internalize their parents' attitudes, so when moms speak kindly about their own bodies, it encourages their children to do the same. If any of the phrases on the left side of this table sound familiar, consider changing them to a phrase on the right side.

Body Positivity - How to Lose Weight Without Harming Your Child’s Self-Esteem

Tips for Losing Weight without Harming Your Child’s Self-Esteem

In a world often fixated on appearance and external standards, it's essential to shift our focus, especially when discussing weight loss with our children. Following these tips will help you reach your weight loss goals without compromising the development of your child’s own body image. 

Shift the focus from appearance.

Losing weight can bring about so many positive benefits besides liking how you look in a swimsuit. When speaking to your children about weight loss, focus on the non-appearance benefits like having more energy, lowering your risk for chronic conditions, and reducing back pain.

“Instead of focusing on weight loss, I encourage parents to focus on what it is that they want to gain as they make changes in their lives,” suggests Schofer. “Is it strength, endurance, flexibility, freedom? Gaining goals are much more supportive to teach children.”

Embrace the joy of your new lifestyle.

Making positive changes for your health can bring so much joy into your life. Nutritious food tastes delicious and getting stronger feels good. By focusing on what you’re gaining rather than what you’re giving up can make the journey more rewarding and support your child’s self-esteem, too. 

“Celebrate with your kids when you're able to run a few extra miles or when your energy levels improve. Encourage your children to do the same so that their focus is on keeping their bodies healthy,” suggests Dr. Huffman. “Avoid sharing with them how much weight you've lost. Doing so shifts their attention and priority to weight loss instead of working on making their body strong and healthy.”

Avoid categorizing foods as good and bad.

While it’s important to limit ultra-processed foods, there’s no such thing as a “good food” or “bad food.” Trying to completely shield your child (or yourself) from certain foods just isn’t realistic in the world we live in. Learning how to mindfully incorporate “treats” into your diet can support you and your child in building healthy relationships with food. 

“Bring some fun and celebratory foods into the home with intention. Ultimately, your child will be exposed to foods like cake, pizza, and soda,” says Miranda Galati, MHSc, RD, RDN. “By bringing them into your home, you’re helping children navigate these sometimes tricky foods and learn their boundaries with them. Shaming certain food choices can potentially lead to disordered eating habits now or late in life, like eating in secret or binge eating behaviors.”

Never comment on other people’s bodies.

Discussing someone's body, even if it's intended as a compliment, can inadvertently send the message that it's ok to comment on other people's appearances without their consent. Children are impressionable, and their self-esteem and body image can be influenced by the comments they hear from adults. Positive body image involves accepting and valuing all body types, regardless of size, shape, or appearance.

“If we want children with strong self-esteem and healthy relationships with food, it’s important to keep the body talk to yourself,” says Galati.

Involve your children in food prep and cooking.

Trying to lose weight too often focuses on denying ourselves the pleasure of food and cooking. Show your child that it’s possible to be healthy and explore delicious flavors by inviting them into the kitchen for meal prep. 

“If you choose to educate your children on nutrition, keep weight loss out of it. Instead, invite your child to find enjoyment in food and get curious,” explains Galati. “Focus on highlighting the benefits of all foods, explore how different foods make them feel, lean into cultural foods and preparation methods, and try new dishes together. Exploration and positivity is key.”

The Bottom Line

If you’re a mom embarking on a weight loss journey, the way you speak about your own body is powerful. Your children will learn a lot about their own worth through what they see and hear at home. Reminding your children that they are worthy beyond the size and shape of their body is helpful, but not enough to support the development of healthy self-esteem. You have to say and believe the same about yourself. 

This article has been clinically reviewed by Hanna Rifkin, RD, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop.

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Sara Huneke
Aug 25, 2023

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