My son came to me in tears. He told me he had been on his computer looking up the average weight for a 10 year old boy. He said his best friend had been repeatedly telling him he was fat.
I was devastated.
I sat with him and held him and explained that sometime kids aren’t kind.
Then I took a deep breath and composed a text message to this child’s mother, doing my best to keep my emotions out of it. Her response was disappointing to say the least. She told me they had actually been discussing this at home and they were concerned about my son. I was furious. I wanted to scream, but instead I helped my son find medical websites that attested that he was not over weight, but average for his age. This seemed to help for the moment, but for months after this conversation, he kept bringing it up.
He would mention his “pudge” or comment on how much he ate. It seemed to be mostly in jest, but he would also ask me where the scale was and if he looked like he had lost weight. Body image had been introduced to my son in a negative context and it needed to change.
There are millions of expectations swirling around us every day. What we should do, how we should act, and what we should wear are all things we inadvertently think about as we begin our day. We are expected to be at work on time, to look presentable for our job or activity, and to say the right things to fit in. But as adults we strive to know what realistic expectations are for ourselves. We are more aware of the expectations that build us up and those that tear us down. Although our kids face many of the same expectations we do, they do not have the experience or know how to hear someone’s negative opinion of themselves without feeling great rejection.
I expected this kind of body shaming from girls, this kind of hurt in my daughter. It made me wonder if girls react the same when friends tell them they’re overweight. My son, in his basketball shorts, dirty t-shirts, mismatched socks and disheveled hair, being concerned when another boy called him fat was unexpected. How much more hurt would a girl, who spends time putting together the right outfit and shoes, fixing her hair and make-up, showing concern with her overall appearance then being criticized, feel?
I have told my son that he is fine as long as he is healthy. To me, he is wonderful. I can tell him he is handsome, kind, loving, but in the end I am his mom, his biggest fan, and he knows that. It makes it hard to completely believe positivity when the one saying it is a part of your existence.
How do we convince our kids that what we see as parents is not just a biased opinion? How do we help keep their confidence through the rejections they face? When the image of themselves doesn’t meet the expectations of others, how do we stand beside them and show them how to see beyond the mirror?
Creating a healthy body image is tough with so much negativity encircling our children. Photoshopped images of celebrities, social media with the best camera angles, and make up tutorials all make it impossible to look at ourselves without thinking we need to look better. But we can set positive examples for our children, especially when looking at ourselves. What do they hear when we get dressed and ask how we look? If we have a positive body image, our children will hear this and learn to look at themselves in a positive way.
When we think of our own body image and then look at those we admire, comparison seems natural. Comparing ourselves with a truly positive role model can build us up, encourage us to be better, and create a healthy competition. But when comparison is combined with a flawed character and negativity, it can tear us down very quickly.
If your kids are uncomfortable with themselves, encourage them to talk about it. Don’t try to fix it, just listen to what they say. Once they are done, let them know you heard them and encourage critical thinking in response to their feelings. Teach them to challenge their own way of thinking about themselves, questioning the expectations rather than trying to conform to them.
All of us were created with talents and gifts. Ask your child what they can do, what they enjoy, and encourage them to focus on the amazing things their body is able do. Get out and enjoy some physical activity together. Hiking, walking or playing a game can teach a healthy lifestyle and show your kids that they are more than what they think they see.