Re-read that sentence and let the reality of it sink in. It’s a fact: almost half of our 9 and 10 year olds are actively trying to change their body for no other reason than that they believe it is wrong, flawed, and inferior. And unfortunately, that early age isn’t where the problematic thinking starts. A recent study shows that already by age 6, girls start to express concern about their weight or shape. I’m pretty sure that while I absolutely grew up with low body image self-esteem, when I was 6 years old I was more concerned about hiding our unofficial Construction Paper Chewing Club (strange I know... we thought it was so rebellious!) from Ms. Cunningham than dieting.

Given the choice again, I’d absolutely take the opportunity to worry about our “defiant, statement making, paper chewing” group of 1st graders over starving my body at 6 years old. Every time.

You might already know about these statistics and how prevalent they are in our society. If you’re here, you probably have children of your own and already see worrisome behaviors around body image or are concerned about how to minimize them when they start to surface.

Often, the go-to tip for parents is to “role model, role model, role model!” Y’know the advice: you have to walk the talk and then your children will pick up the great messages along the way! And this is totally true, but also one of the hardest things to do. LOVE YOURSELF AND YOUR CHILDREN WILL LEARN TO LOVE THEMSELVES TOO! they say. But sometimes this small detail is forgotten: that mandate can feel totally impossible. I mean, over 91% of cisgender women are unhappy with their bodies (read: almost all female role models) so that scary statistic about elementary kids practicing deprivation/dieting behaviors? It’s really not surprising. We’re ALL caught up in the destructive cycle of self-hatred and adding the pressure of needing to “fake it till you make it” for the little ones can feel overwhelming.

I’m going to of course advocate for you to continue to learn to love your body, because… you’re worth it. I’ve dedicated my life to body image activism which means I have been doing research around our society and how we feel about our bodies (and why? and how do we fix it all?) for years. I do this because I believe that physical self-hatred is unnecessary and the reason we continue to obsess over it has everything to do with a larger plan to keep us pre-occupied, distracted, and unable to see/reach our true potential. So yes, please keep working on yourself! You totally deserve it. But you don’t necessarily need to add any more pressure to raising a family, and so I’d like to offer you my top five tips for how to instill body love in your children and teens in the real world… besides role modeling.

(Note: I do not have kids. Many of these suggestions come from interviewing professionals, years of body image research, my personal experiences as a chubby kid and teen and of course—- talking to other kids and teens themselves!)

1.) Normalize diversity in your home:

This is something that can be done from the get go.

It’s incredible to me how easily the human brain can be conditioned to believe that a “certain look” is the only desirable look. This can happen without a word being spoken; the simple elimination of everything except for our “beauty standard” in media is enough to instill belief that until we look like the people in movies or on magazines… we do not deserve to be seen. To counter this, we simply need to fill our line of vision (and our children’s) with as many diverse bodies as possible. Bring all sizes, shapes, ages, sexes, genders, abilities, races into your home and normalize the incredible diversity in our world. Search out posters for your walls that includes all sorts of bodies. Buy movies that include all abilities (and ClaraBelle Blue). Purchase books that talk about all genders, sizes and races (example: these 6 body positive books for kids, the Know Yourself series, THIS BOOK and some of these feminist coloring books). Give your child a world in which they belong and deserve to be seen!

2.) Make exercise be a fun thing! (Not a punishment)

When I was 11, I rose early in the morning (5:30 am) to do go participate in a step aerobics class with adults before school. Just me... and all of my friend’s mothers. No other kids showed up because 1.) What kid WANTS to be up at 5:30 at that age? and 2.) I was the “chubby” one of my friend group and therefore needed the extra help.

While I was not excited about the early class time, I was even less excited about my body size; I had always been the fat kid and felt like I needed to “fix” this problem before I could have permission to feel good about myself. While my decision was supported with rides to and from, no one “made” me do this necessarily... but they didn’t have to. I grew up thinking that my large body was inherently bad (thanks Society!) and that exercise, while punishment, was also the solution.

I’m sad to say that I still continue to have mental barriers around exercise classes as an adult and it’s all because they were used as self-punishment while young. Even though I have spent years redefining my worth and the joy that can be felt from moving my body… this initial introduction has stayed with me and continues to hinder my relationship with exercise.

So with this in mind I encourage you to help your children see moving their bodies as a wonderful, beautiful, and fun thing COMPLETELY SEPARATE from needing to “fix” anything.

Sarah Koppelkam says it so perfectly (though of course this is not gender-specific):

“Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or mountain bike because it scares her and that's a good thing sometimes. 
Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you'll never stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn't absolutely in love with.”
And of course, if there are movements that your child is unable to do, celebrate the ones that they can. There is no hierarchy when it comes to movement!
3.) Take the time to sit down and talk about photoshop:

Before writing this article, I ran the concept by my 14 year old brother. I asked him what would help teens learn to love their body. His answer? “Tell them they’re perfect just as they are” (super great bonus tip!) “and just talk to them about what’s fake and why it’s fake. Teens will get it.”

And I say: AMEN you genius boy, you.

When I lecture at universities, I KNOW that the audience is familiar with photoshop… but I still make time to talk about it and it’s insidious influence anyways. Because image manipulation is so pervasive that even when we “know” about it, we don’t often understand how much it affects us. Have this conversation with your child as early as you like, and keep having it!

I was chatting about whitewashing online a while back (whitewashing: the super problematic act of lightening skin so that it matches our eurocentric ideal) and a reader left me the greatest anecdote:

“My daughter asked me one day what ‘“whitewashing’” meant the other day. I told her and showed her examples. She just kept asking why they would do that. She is 11 and after I explained beauty ideals and how incorrect they are all she could say is ‘“That’s stupid. There is nothing wrong with those ladies and magazine people suck at life.’” before going off to play Minecraft.”

This is a conversation that I wish I had as a child and so PROPS to that parent and her daughter!

4.) Remove “Flattering” from your conversations:

I’ll never forget the first time I was allowed to shop for clothing ALL BY MYSELF. At 13, my Mom was my constant style companion and while I appreciated her input (and willingness to clothe me) I was stoked to have complete freedom to choose any piece of clothing I wanted from Sears. I left the store with a pale green cotton shirt covered in tiny flowers. And while I loved the color, the “cool factor” for me came with the scoop cut neck and puffed capped sleeves—- all made possible with elastic that sat snuggly around my upper arm.

I probably wore it everyday for a week; I was that kinda kid. But the worshiping of this “boho chic” number was cut short one day as my Mom and I walked up the sidewalk to the house and she said “Y’know Jes, you really shouldn’t wear sleeves like this because they’re unflattering... and draw attention to your arms.”

She didn’t mean to devastate me; she was simply trying to help her daughter make fashionable choices that would lead to less ridicule. And I totally get where she was coming from; I was no stranger to being made fun of at school. But my love for that shirt was ruined forever and I don’t think I owned another top with elastic in the sleeves until I learned that fashion rules are backwards and you really can wear whatever you want. I lost out on 14 years of clothing I loved because of the word “flattering.”

My suggestion: try eliminating “the word flattering” from your vocabulary. Forever. Don’t buy into the fact that bodies have to look a certain way in order to be okay. If bullying happens because of what your child wears, teach them how to talk to an adult at school and then preach and practice self-love and advocacy at home!

5.) Help your child see themselves as a whole person.

And of course, there is always the importance of not focusing on appearance at all! This may sound hypocritical coming from someone who just spent the majority of this article talking about “looks”, but hear me out:  our bodies are important and if we ignore them all together we’ll be sorely inept at existing in this world. We must learn to love and appreciate them as well as counter negative messaging! But we’re also so much more than our outsides and children especially need this message. I know this. You know this. So… how do we do this?

I’m not going to ask you to enroll your child in every extracurricular activity—- that’s not possible for some, nor is it entirely necessary. Lauren Pinto and Meagan Kimm are two teachers in California that have developed an amazing curriculum for school-aged kids that teaches self-esteem and body love. They suggest that you put value in a variety of different areas for your child and have conversations that engage their uniqueness. Lauren and Meagan encourage small things like: asking their thoughts on the mural you pass on the way home, spending time together doing community work and volunteering, having conversations about sports and teamwork, and appreciating the miraculous things our bodies can do—- like healing cuts and regenerating skin! Teaching kids the basics of anatomy at an early age can help with self-confidence. Knowing that we’re all made of the same stuff, no matter what our size, is empowering. Our bodies are more than beautiful: they’re necessary for living in this world and experiencing a wonderful life! This is something I was blessed to have growing up and looking back, I know it was my saving grace.


Whatever you decide to implement within your home, I hope you remember that your best is good enough. You are countering teachings that have been around for decades and it’s anything but simple or easy. Try something new, make mistakes, learn from it, and try again! You’ve got this.

Do you have any other tips that you would suggest? Feel free to leave them below… I’d love to hear them!

(Know Yourself is start-up that has created a space that "explains the ABCs and 123s of one’s anatomy, physiology, and psychology in an easy to learn way" for kids and teens. They asked me to write this piece for their site and I happily agreed because god knows we don't have enough resources for kids/teens right now. If you don't know them, change that!)

Like this blog? Then you'll probably love my book Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls. TNOWTFG "is a manifesto and call to arms for people of all sizes and ages." Learn more here.

Want to hear me speak? I'd love to visit your campus or come to your event! You can find more info here or you can just email me at themilitantbaker at gmail.com. Cheers!

No comments

Back to Top