Maya (identifying details in this story have been changed) came to see me regarding her son this week. With the return to school, she was feeling anxious about other children at school commenting on her son’s weight gain over summer. Maya came to see me alone, which was a wise choice. While there is plenty to be shared with our children, being alone allowed us to talk deeply about her concerns.
It interested me that Maya herself was not concerned about her son’s weight gain. She had noticed a change in her son’s body shape but in our session, she interpreted it in a totally different way. For her, it reflected the wonderful summer they had just shared as well as her son growing up. She did not attach any judgement to it and certainly didn’t value her son any differently.
This difference in interpretation shows how body image is purely about a personal reflection on it. We can have different perspectives, almost like when we talk about our recent summer holidays. You will notice you do not recall the detail of what actually happened but more offer an interpretation. For example, different interpretations of a rainy family trip may be “It was so much fun to be together, even though it rained a lot” or “The rain ruined our holiday” or even “It would have been better without rain but we made the most of it”. In the same way, body image is a representation of the body which means it can be interpreted in a neutral, positive or negative way (www.cci.health.wa.gov.au ).
If you can relate to Maya’s story and are curious with how to handle comments from others around your child’s body then there is something particularly important in your role as a support person, and that is to avoid helping your child to “fix” their body as a response. What I mean by this, is if the comment is around a larger body, a “fix” would be to lose weight, while comments around a thinner body would have a “fix” of weight gain.
A comment around spinach in my teeth? Yes, a problem to be fixed. Your child’s body, however, does not need fixing.
Any response to your child that helps them to “fix” or change their body is likely to have the effect of reinforcing that there is something to worry about. If Maya’s response is to help her son to lose weight, she would be reinforcing the concept that there is something wrong with weight gain or a larger body. The message to her son is that he isn’t wholly acceptable unless he changes his size or is small.
In the future, if he returns to a similar body shape and size then the feelings about judgement are likely to return. Unfortunately, this puts him at higher risk for health-damaging behaviours in the future including starvation, cigarette smoking and vomiting (O’Dea J (2005) ‘Prevention of child obesity: First, do no harm’ Health Education Research).
If you are motivated to make changes to keep your family healthy then go for it but the key is to do it to look after everyone’s health and not link it to trying to change anyone’s body and certainly don’t link it to the comments at school. For example, fill the shopping trolley with more summer fruits, freeze yoghurt as a great summer snack, increase how often your family goes to the park or pool. All these things take care of your child’s body but have no relationship to their size.
Where to get further help?
If you are concerned about your child’s body image, I am always a big advocate of the wonderful work GPs do in directing you to the right support network so that is a great place to start. Your GP can refer you onto Dietitians and Psychologists like me who specialise in the area.
If you are looking for more general information, then there are some great resources out there:
A final word…
Let me leave you with a direct quote from Dr Samantha Thomas in her role as Senior Research Fellow, and Head of the Consumer Health Research Group (CHaRGe) at Monash University (www.ifnotdiet.com.au):
“Positive Body Image is not about creating an acceptable body ‘norm’ or about trying to make yourself look thinner, more beautiful, younger, or whatever. It’s not about trying to ‘hide’ or ‘make the best of’ who you are. That is called “Marketing”.
Because where bodies are concerned, there is no norm. Because we ARE ALL DIFFERENT! Which is what makes us REAL. And celebrating that difference is what positive Body Image is about.”
Instead of “fixing a problem” show your child that they are loved and valuable for whoever they are. You will be the expert at this.
Please note that if you suspect your child has an eating disorder, or has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, this information should not be applied, and I encourage you to seek/continue help from your GP and specialised team.