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This time of year, when overzealous diet and fitness resolutions are beginning to wane, it’s a great time to re-direct our focus to “real solutions” that can have a lasting impact in our lives. For me, this year’s focus is on the increasingly evident body-image crisis, particularly amongst younger generations.

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I recently read some disturbing statistics on this topic via the Huffington Post:

  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls wish they were thinner (source: Collins, 1991)
  • 81% of 10 year old girls are afraid of getting fat (source: Mellin et al, 1991)
  • in a survey of girls approximately 14-18 years :
    • more than 59% were trying to lose weight
    • in the last 30 days prior to survey, over 18% had starved themselves for a day or more to lose weight
    • 11.3% had used diet pills and 8.4% had vomited or taken laxatives to lose weight
    • (source: CDC, 2004)

My immediate thought was of my 5-year old daughter and how hell-bent and determined I am to prevent her from being a part of those statistics (because I sure didn’t manage to avoid it myself, and it wasn’t much fun). My next thought was how everyone – parent or not – can be a part of preventing our future generations from perpetuating these statistics.

By now, we all know there’s a problem with the media – that images are being photo-shopped to portray unrealistic body proportions and impossibly flawless skin – but blaming the media doesn’t help the situation. We can’t control what’s in the media. We also can’t put our children in giant bubbles to prevent them from seeing T.V. or magazine ads, or from ever playing with a Barbie or Disney Princess doll. What we can do though, is look in the mirror and see what behaviours we’re modelling to our children.

Like it or not, our children are watching our every move, all the time – even when we don’t think they’re watching. Just like they learn our language by repeating our words, they also learn other patterns and behaviours, including those of self-love and acceptance (or lack thereof), by mimicking us. Our children’s body image will become a direct reflection of our own.

Now this is not an article aimed at blaming parents for all their children’s problems, but rather a call out to parents – myself included – to take responsibility. By taking responsibility, we have the control to change it – without guilt, shame or blame. We have the opportunity to impact the course of our children’s lives by taking responsibility for what they see, hear, feel and experience at home. We can directly influence how they see the world, and more importantly, themselves.

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By making the shift from blaming media and other outside sources, to taking responsibility for how we show up in our children’s worlds, we can more easily influence how they grow, hopefully into confident human beings who will focus on bigger and better things than the number they see on the scale, or the shape of their butts – perhaps on passions like saving the environment or endangered species, or ending world hunger.

Telling our children that they’re smart, talented, unique and beautiful just as they are, is important – but it’s simply not enough. We have to model it. They won’t just “do as we say” in this case; they will do as we do. So, from as early an age as possible, we need to start acting like the women (and men – because boys and men are just as susceptible to poor body image) we want our daughters (and sons) to grow up to be. It’s time to start breaking the pattern that we see repeating itself generation after generation – and in the process, help ourselves live out more fulfilling lives.

So let’s make 2015 a life-changing year, shall we?

Here are 7 quick “Do’s and Don’ts” on how to start doing this right away.

1) DON’T go to extremes.

This includes any dramatic change to your diet and fitness routines (i.e. eliminating any entire food group, or going from couch to “insanity”-style workouts). New Year’s Resolutions are typically made of these extreme endeavors, which is why most people fail to maintain them.

DO educate yourself and make small, realistic changes to your nutrition and fitness habits each and every week.

Ask yourself: “Can I do this (change) every day – or week – for the rest of my life?” If the answer is no, then make the change smaller until it’s a yes. Remember to also plan or schedule it to ensure it gets done, until it becomes habit. If done consistently, by the end of this year, you will have made 52 positive, permanent changes. Is that not way better than 10 drastic, unsustainable ones that you have to repeat each and every January?

Note: When it comes to nutrition, adding healthy options is usually a much easier and more sustainable change than eliminating “bad” ones. When you start to feel healthier from choosing more nourishing options, the elimination of unsupported foods/habits usually comes naturally (although not an overnight process); but when we resolve to eliminate something altogether, that’s typically when we focus on it and want it more. Drastic is rarely sustainable.

What your children will learn from this:

Being active is a lifestyle (not just something you do a couple of times a year), and fitness is something you can build on over time to achieve better and better results. They’ll also learn that food is nourishing, and interesting, and even fun – not evil. By switching from a diet-mentality to one of nutrition (BIG difference), your children won’t be directly exposed to detrimental habits of deprivation and binge eating. Instead, they’ll learn balance.

Furthermore, if you’re continually adding new healthy foods into your weekly menu, trying new healthy recipes, and involving your kids in the process, they will not only learn the importance of nutrition, but they’ll also learn how to prepare healthy foods and make better food choices for themselves when you’re not around.

 2) DON’T use the F-word. Ever.

“Fat” is a word that NEVER gets used in our home (my daughter probably wouldn’t even know the meaning of it if someone asked her), unless it’s in reference to the healthy fats in my morning smoothie or homemade salad dressing. It’s become such a harmful and hurtful way to describe someone’s physical body – even when you’re talking about your own, and especially in front of your children. No matter how it’s said, even in humour, it’s harmful and can have a lasting effect on your children.

DO talk about feeling healthy and energetic.

Let’s face it, when we go over our healthy weight/size threshold, it usually comes with feelings of sluggishness and discomfort. Yet most complaints are about the excess weight or (f-word). Some people may also have concerns about their children’s weight. As parents, it’s our responsibility to stop complaining, and simply do something about it. Our children will model our behaviour.

What your children will learn from this:

Although they will no-doubt be exposed to this language outside of the home (whether around them or directed at them), what they learn at home will impact how they react and how they let it affect them. If their parents are not judging or giving their body labels, children will be more likely to express kindness, rather than judgement, towards their peers, and themselves – no matter what their size.

3) DON’T spend time nit-picking imperfections in the mirror.

Your children are watching, and will in turn begin to look for blemishes, wrinkles, and other things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

DO nurture your body and skin regularly.

Take care of yourself with good daily hygiene, and include regular pampering. Take a sea salt or lavender bath, cleanse with an occasional mud mask, get a pedicure, or whatever else makes you feel amazing. Make sure to treat yourself to pampering every week – it doesn’t have to cost money. Don’t forget to always remove makeup and moisturize before bed. Your skin will love you for it.

What your children will learn from this:

They’ll learn to take good care of themselves, and to focus on the things that make them feel good, not the things they don’t like. In short, they’ll learn to nurture, not nit-pick.

4) DON’T dress up or wear make-up everyday.

Of course there may be a professional reason for dressing up on weekdays, but whenever you can, step out the door with a “naked” face and comfortable clothes and notice how refreshing it feels – and how much time it saves! Show your children that you don’t “have” to dress up or make up your face every day.

DO dress regularly for play!

Put your hair in a bad ponytail, throw on your crappy jeans or p.j. pants and a t-shirt and get ready to play with your children – go to the park, or beach, or hiking trail, or just stay in your backyard. Be present with them, and pay no attention whatsoever to your hair, makeup, or clothes. Your primary goal is to have fun.

What your children will learn from this:

There’s more to life than looking good. In fact, sometimes you can have more fun when you’re dressed like crap because you don’t mind getting dirty.

Oh, and they’ll learn that mom’s actually pretty cool.

5) DON’T highlight your weaknesses.

Your children are listening! When you talk about the things you suck at, they will talk about the things they suck at, which is obviously counterproductive to lifting their self-esteem. We all suck at some things, even many things. Who cares. We are also amazing at other things. We can’t all be a jack-of-all-trades – and frankly who wants to be, it sounds exhausting – so stop giving attention to those things you don’t do well. If you have trouble with this, engage some supportive partners to stop you in your tracks when you start putting yourself down.

DO focus on your passions and strengths.

What you focus on expands. By making this one simple shift, you could go from being amazing at something, to being simply incredible/Ellen Show-worthy at that thing. Now that’s worth putting some effort into, isn’t it?

What your children will learn from this:

This one’s a no-brainer: they will learn to focus and build on their passions and strengths, and do way less of putting themselves down for the things they don’t do as well.

6) DON’T judge others – either by putting them down OR putting them on a pedestal.

Our children are learning from our every word.

DO point out the best in others, without glorifying them.

The beauty of being a parent and leading our children is that we have the freedom to choose what we draw their attention to – for example, we could point to a magazine and say how sickly thin a model looks (put-down-mode), or how enviously naturally-toned her legs are (pedestal-mode), or we can simply say “I love that gorgeous dress – it really suits her”. It’s all a choice – and by choosing the latter, we’re giving our children that same freedom.

What your children will learn from this:

There are unique and positive traits in everyone; yet no one is “better” than anyone else.

 7) DON’T weigh yourself more than once/week (MAX!).

It’s important to NOT give so much attention to the scale, or weight-loss as a goal in general. It’s definitely not the best measure of health, and can lead to obsessive behaviour (which, you guessed it, your children are watching). For most accurate physical results of your healthy efforts, use a tape measure. I also recommend keeping a daily journal of your overall energy level and mood (happiness) on a scale of 1-10. Because that’s the stuff that really matters.

DO hide your bathroom scale, so it’s not readily accessible to your children – or yourself.

If you absolutely must use it (which I really don’t advocate), bring it out only every 4-6 weeks to check in on your personal progress – and only every year for your children, to record their milestone weight. Or better yet, let the Dr. do that for you.

What your children will learn from this:

Nothing, hopefully. If they don’t see it, they won’t learn the habit and resulting negative impact of daily/hourly scale-gazing.

Could these seemingly small (but rather huge) steps actually lead to a “life-changing” year? I really do believe it. If we can release our addiction to fads, quick fixes and all that is “wrong” with ourselves and the world, and instead turn our attention to laying a positive body-image foundation for our children through our conscious, positive behaviours, we can not only change our own lives, but also have a lasting impact on theirs.

As Gandhi famously said “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Whether you’re a parent, auntie/uncle, big sister/brother, babysitter, teacher or anyone else that has an influence on children – make it a positive one, and be the model of how you wish to see the children in your life grow and thrive in the world.


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