“Look at how big my belly is!” Peeper exclaimed. Never has anyone in the history of the planet uttered these words with such joy. As I cheered for her (“Yay, your belly is so big!”), it struck me that her innocent celebration of her body managed to avoid body shame.
I want to protect her body positivity as long as I can. I want to raise both my girls to be confident. I want to continue to avoid body shame in my kids.
An uphill battle
Raising my girls to have a positive body image, of course, is an enormous and ongoing project. I feel overwhelmed when I think of all the outside messages from the media, their peers and the world at large that will combat the body positivity, acceptance and love I try to instill at home. But starting to avoid body shame when they are young will build a foundation of confidence that will help them stand strong against messages they are not good enough.
If you’re looking to raise your kids—boys or girls—to love their bodies and avoid body shame, too, here are 6 ways we keep body positivity going strong.
How to avoid body shame in kids
1. Don’t call diapers “dirty.” In our house, diapers are poopy or wet, not dirty. My girls will deal with enough BS labeling their normal bodily functions disgusting; they don’t need that shit at home, too.
2. Name their body parts. Research shows that using the correct name for your child’s anatomy reduces body shame and even makes it more likely for a child to report sexual abuse. If your kid knows her elbow is an elbow, she can also know her vagina’s a vagina.
3. Praise her body. Peeper often points out scabs that have grown over her scrapes—”Look, my owie is healing down!” she’ll say. “Wow, isn’t that amazing how your body heals when it gets hurt?” I’ll respond. Acknowledging the amazing ways her body works will help her treat it as something to love, not an adversary to battle.
4. Encourage curiosity. Sometimes we’ll wonder aloud about the body—like “I wonder what happens after you swallow your mac n cheese?” That can lead to a lesson about what the body does—showing that a body is much more than what you see on the surface. Nonfiction children’s books like What Happens to a Hamburger, The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body and The Quest to Digest are a great way to explore! (Affiliate links)
5. Demonstrate body positivity. Kids are sponges, and they soak up how they see parents—their main sources of information and how to interact in the world—treat their own bodies. Obviously criticizing your own perceived body flaws (“ugh, these lovehandles”) is a no-no. But go beyond avoiding body-hating talk and actually praise your own body, like “I love how strong my muscles are when I jump on the trampoline!”
6. Show differences are ok. Studies repeatedly show that trying to raise racially colorblind kids doesn’t work; similarly, shushing kids who mention other physical differences teaches them that one kind of body is better than another. So we talk about differences, from the color of our hair to the fact that Aunt Rose rides in a wheelchair, without placing value judgments. If it feels awkward at first, push yourself to talk about bodies more—you and your kids will learn together!
How have you taught your kids body positivity?