A better body image

Molly Logan Anderson

Can you feel the excitement in the air as school-age kids enter the summer months? Free of their tight schedule and normal routine, warm weather offers kids plenty of opportunities for fun in the sun and time with friends. Unfortunately, the same activities that kids enjoy so much can also cause anxiety about their appearance.For teens, tweens and even elementary-age children, physical appearance is a top concern. If parents start early and are consistent with positive body-image messages, children will be better able to avoid disordered eating patterns down the line.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, a 1991 study found that 42 percent of first- through third-grade girls would like to be thinner. Another study that same year determined that 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Statistics like these suggest that a cultural bias toward thinness is leading our youth to value a particular size at a very young age. Parental guidance is more important than ever.

Why do kids care?

It seems as if childhood concerns regarding weight and appearance start earlier and earlier.

“I think the struggles affect kids at a much younger age,” says Kathy Kater, LICSW, psychotherapist and author of “Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too!”

“I don’t think the way kids struggle is all that different [than years ago], the struggles are just more pervasive. Kids can’t escape the pressures.”

Kater believes parents, and our culture as a whole, are overly concerned with whether or not kids have the “right” look, clothes or toys.

“This turns up the emphasis on appearance so much earlier,” says Kater, who practices in St. Paul, Minn., and speaks publicly on the topic. Realizing and celebrating that real kids come in all sizes is key to instilling a good body image for up and coming generations.

Shift away from size

The average American woman weighs 164 pounds and is 5 feet 3 inches tall, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics. Our culture’s focus on fat and size leads to an unrealistic image of what people should look like.

“As soon as you start worrying about size, then body image issues arise,” Kater says. “You may see actions to change the body, unhealthy eating or exercising patterns. This can lead to disordered eating.”

Kater’s best advice is for parents to shift their focus to healthy eating and being active in relation to both themselves and their kids.

What to avoid

Along the lines of shifting focus from size to health, Kater recommends parents avoid using size as a goal. “In doing this, size is identified as something we’re able to manipulate or control,” Kater says. In actuality, she says, weight is more similar to cholesterol or high blood pressure, which we can influence but not control.

“We can have some influence over our weight by doing two things: satisfying our hunger with wholesome foods at regular intervals and being active most days.” When we’re doing those things, Kater says, we’re doing all we can to be healthy.

Healthy lifestyle

It’s the job of parents to help children learn how to face the rigors of adult life. Kids are taught to be good students, have proper manners, manage money and even drive well. “I don’t think that many people think about eating or physical fitness as a competency,” Kater says. “Parents should take this on as a priority and teach kids to be competent in feeding themselves, learning to balance foods and prepare meals.”

No time is too early to involve kids in the process of eating healthy, from meal planning to food prep. Kids should grow up with activity being a part of daily life as well.