How To Talk About Body Image With Your Kids By Therapist Hillary L McBride
Hillary is currently a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she is studying Counselling Psychology. As part of her doctoral studies she will be continuing the work she started in her Masters studies, to explore women’s’ experiences of the self as it is lived out through and in the body, particularly at points of development such as puberty, pregnancy, mothering, menopause and ageing. When not working on doctoral studies, Hillary runs a private practice where she works as a generalist, seeing both men, women, and couples for a variety of concerns, including acute mental health issues. She works regularly with people struggling with depression, anxiety, life transitions, stress, self-harm, abuse, relationship issues, and sexuality.
In her practice, she also specialises in women’s issues from a feminist perspective (including perinatal mental health, body image, and disordered eating) as well as trauma and trauma therapies, working with people who have experienced all ranges of trauma from sustained early childhood abuse, to single incident adult trauma. Hillary has designed health body image presentations and groups for grade 6 and 7 girls and their mothers that she has presented in several schools. She has also designed research and groups for women struggling with sexual health in the postpartum period- to better facilitate healthy sexuality for mothers after childbearing. Hillary also serves on the board of directors for Free To Be, a non-profit which educates girls and boys in school about healthy body image, and resisting appearance pressures.
In addition to being an academic and clinician who specialises in these issues, Hillary is also a survivor of an eating disorder, with which she struggled and received care for many years. As part of her healing journey, she made a commitment to learn more about what contributed to the development of the disorder in her life and, with this, to find ways to create a world in which girls and women no longer have to struggle in the way she did. In her spare time, Hillary enjoys riding her bike, playing guitar and violin, spending time with her close friends laughing and growing, and finding ways to contribute to her community. She is an avid tea drinker, and has never turned down a good cup of chai.
As a therapist, I get the privilege of sitting down with all kinds of people to hear their honest stories about life, pain, joy, growth, and loss. It gives me an inside perspective into the fears that many parents have about their children, about their ability to be good enough as parents, and the hope that their kids won’t struggle in the ways that they have.
It won’t surprise you to know that for many parents this includes a very visceral fear about body image. I have lost count of how many mothers I’ve heard say “I don’t want my daughter to hate her body like I do”, or “My struggle with my appearance have been so overwhelming that I feel paralysed when it comes to talking to my kids about their body image.”
I had the same fear. After working very hard to overcome my own body-hatred, and the related perfectionism, self-criticism, and shame, I asked the same questions and it was through my research in graduate school that I looked for the answers.
I was driven to make sure that if I was to have kids one day, daughters in particular, that I would know how to help them love their bodies- and all of themselves- just as they are. As the result of many years of academic research through my Masters and Doctoral training, my current work as a clinical counsellor, and my own journey of recovery, I finally do not feel as afraid of these statements, and want to help you get there too.
Here are the highlights from my research and clinical work about how to talk about body image with your kids, and help them develop a healthy body image and sense of self.
When parents get worried about talking about something with their kids, or have struggled to find the right words for something that feels overwhelming, it can be tempting to launch into a speech that is overwhelming for your kids to hear, and doesn’t allow for a conversation (a real back and forth) to take place. In order for them to feel safe to tell you things about their lives, they need to know you’re really listening. And the moment you start trying to tell them what to do, you stop listening to what’s going on for them. Try asking them these questions, or similar questions in age appropriate ways:
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
What do you feel about how you look?
What do your friends say about their bodies and how they look?
What do you think you’re learning from me about bodies? (That one is hard one for parents to ask because they’re afraid of what they might hear, but I promise you that in the end you’ll be better able to support your kids by knowing the answer)
Discuss media with them
Media is all around us, we can not get away from it, and may never want to. But as adults, we are able to think critically about the things we see in way that kids brains are not able to. We have to teach them how to think about what they see. But it’s hard to do this if we don’t know what they are watching or consuming. So spend time with your kids, and keep an eye on what you see. If you see images of women who are very thin, or images of men who are hyper-muscular, or if the content of the program is focused on appearance, or weight loss, that is a good time to have a conversation about that. You might start by simply making a statement. For example, “I want you to know that even though there are images of really thin women on this show, healthy and beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes. We see thin women all the time, and those are the ones who seem to be most popular and happy. But happiness is not about size, it’s about so much more.” Or, you could try asking a question, “It seems that all the people on this show look the same, is that what people in the real world look like?” You might even prompt them by saying things like, “This show is missing people who look like your friends at school, there are no people of different skin colours, cultures, or sizes, so we know this show isn’t how the real world looks”. This is important to do with both boys and girls.
Share your concerns about what culture says about bodies and appearance
Tell your kids outright that there are a lot of people who get really sad, and sick, and hurt being worried about how they look, and not feeling good enough because of it. For example, “I want you to know that in our family, you are always going to be loved, no matter how you look. And if someone does not love you because you look a certain way, then their opinion doesn’t matter.” You could even add in, “Sometimes advertising companies use how much people hate their bodies to sell products, trying to trick people into thinking that if they buy that product, their bodies will change, and they will be happier”. It is always important to add, “It’ss normal to have days when you’re not totally happy with how you look or feel about yourself, but if you feel that, come talk to me and we will figure it out together, you are not alone in this world. I may not have all the answers, but I want you to know that I will always do my best to help you, and will never stop loving you”.
Encourage body positive talk
When talking about bodies as a family, encourage conversation with focus on strengths and positivity. This might mean asking questions like “Tell me something you love about your body”, or saying things about your own body which will help your kids develop a sense of marvel and appreciation for everything their bodies is. For example, say things like “Wow, I’m so glad on days like this that my legs are so strong and sturdy so I can run around with you at the park. My legs help me move in the world, and they bring me closer to you when we are playing together.” Remember that concerns about bodies are normal, but we have a choice to focus on the good things as well, and there are always good things. These can come in the form of beauty (what amazing eyelashes you have, or the softness of your skin is so wonderful, etc. ) or function (think of all the amazing things our bodies do, they help us grow, hold books, give hugs, build things, run through the playground, etc).
Be careful what you model for them
Messages get passed from parents to kids both by modelling (what you do) and direct communication (what you say to them out loud) and to raise healthy kids you need to pay attention to both. It can be so easy for us as women to have little things slip out of our mouths or to act in ways that we don’t even notice. In my research, young women can recall things their mothers said and did that the mothers themselves didn’t even notice. They talked about how their moms made little comments under their breath about their ‘spare tyre’ or how they caught their moms pulling on drooping skin in the mirror when they thought their girls weren’t looking. The sad part of this is that the daughters noticed this, even when the moms thought they were actually hiding it. Kids are incredibly perceptive this way. So the hard truth is that if you carry body shame, make sure you don’t model that for your kids, make sure you begin to work on having a more loving and compassionate relationship with your body. They will know it if you don’t. So, perhaps it’s time to read some books, listen to some podcasts, join a group, or talk to a therapist. What you say is important, but one of the best gifts you can give them is to model for them what you’d like their lives to be like when they grow up. So, if you don’t want them to feel bad about their bodies, like you do might do about yours, it’s time for you to start working on yourself. What we know is that so much of what you say, isn’t actually said out loud.
This is all a process. But the fact that you’re reading this article is a sign that you’re on the right track. Start by thinking through what you’ve just read, and if possible talk about it with your partner, and then make a choice about how you will act. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be there, trying your best and willing to say you’re sorry when appropriate. You are one of the most important people in the life of your children, and what you say and do matters.
Hillary L McBride, MA, RCC is a therapist, researcher, speaker and writer from Vancouver BC, Canada.
Hillary has a book out October 31st about the links between mothers, daugthers and body image which is based on innovative research she started during her Masters, and is continuing during her PhD in Counselling Psychology. Follow her on twitter @hillarylmcbride, or on Instagram @hillaryliannamcbride. You can find more about her work, and her book, at hillarylmcbride.com