Recently, a community center in the Bronx invited me to speak at a workshop on nutrition and body image for young dancers. When I say young, I mean fresh out of kindergarten. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, planning the first part of the workshop came easily. But the subject of body image, especially when presented to such a vulnerable group, had me lying awake at night.
Body image, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is a subjective picture of one's own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others. While men may suffer from BDD (body dysmorphic disorder), it is generally recognized that women and girls are more frequently subject to issues related to body image. And with the advent of social media, imagery is coming at us from all different angles. Add the recent uptick in cosmetic surgery procedures performed in the United States into the mix, and it’s understandable that girls are left feeling less than great about themselves. Research suggests that children as young as six years old have an awareness of fatness, and girls as young as eight are already dieting.
There is only so much filtering, monitoring, and restricting a mother can do to control her daughter’s exposure to potentially detrimental imagery. What we can do is help shift the conversation we’re having about our bodies away from image and toward function, gratitude, and self-care.
1. Celebrate what your body DOES.
Take opportunities to give thanks to your body, and encourage your daughter to do the same. Recognize your legs for taking you on a long run, your arms for lugging groceries, your nose for smelling the delicious aromas of fall…the list goes on. Need an extra dose of gratitude? Imagine life with a missing or compromised body part next time you’re tempted to disparage your physical appearance.
2. Accept compliments with grace.
Be the example of positivity and confidence when someone vocally admires your physical appearance. How many times have you defaulted to “oh, really? You think so?” when a friend says you look great? Probably too many! Say thank you and move on.
3. Eat well, move your body, and catch those Z’s!
The words “diet” and “exercise” have no place in the vernacular of a six-year-old girl (or boy, for that matter). Eat for both fuel and enjoyment without demonizing foods. Encourage and participate in active play. Set and stick to bedtime. These are three most important things we can do to love and care for our bodies – be the example and establish healthy habits.