I’m honored to have a friend guest posting today. Melissa Clark is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in disordered eating, body image, and self-worth. When she asked if she could share the story of the first time her 6-year-old daughter said she was fat, I didn’t hesitate to give over this space.
Sitting in our favorite corner booth, my daughter and I sipped our drinks while waiting for our magic number to be called and our cheeseburgers to arrive. I lovingly played with her hair, leaned in for a hug, and then said, “You’re getting so big.”
It was such an innocent comment. I expected her to look up and give me a big grin without showing her front teeth. Instead, fear filled her eyes. Anxiety washed over her face.
“Does that mean I’m going to be fat?” Then, matter-of-factly, she said, “I do not want to be fat.”
My heart sank, deep.
You see, I’m a professional counselor who specializes in disordered eating and body-image disturbances. Daily, I sit with men and women and navigate through the depression and anxiety often produced by a negative body image.
Blindsided, I sat at the booth looking at my teary-eyed daughter. I was shocked and rattled to be already having this conversation with my daughter.
Days later, my heart sank further when I found her staring in the mirror after a bath. Her eyes, again filled with worry and were laser-focused on her stomach. Through her tears, she asked, “Why isn’t my stomach a normal size? Why is it so large? (It isn’t large, but that’s not the point. In her eyes, it’s large).
My education and degrees are meaningless at times like these. I feel caught off guard and speechless. These are the turning points in a child’s life.
In an age when obesity is on the rise, parents with great motives are unintentionally shaming children for their size and encouraging them to lose weight. But kids are smart. They pick up on everything (except their Legos and Barbie dolls).
If you’re the mom or dad of an early elementary student, don’t think your son or daughter is immune to having a negative body image. According to the National Association of Eating Disorders, 42 percent of first- through third-graders feel that they’re overweight. My daughter is in kindergarten and already fearful of being too large.
If you still doubt these facts, check out the DOVE “Onslaught” video that illustrates the pressure forced on children today. These are the images our daughters and sons are absorbing about beauty. From YouTube to television to talk on the playground, our children are being indoctrinated about the significance of beauty and good looks.
So, what’s a parent to do? What are healthy ways to talk to your children about empowering a healthy body image?
I have some really simple advice. (Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy to do).
1. Listen. Really listen. Don’t try and fix it for them. Definitely, don’t suggest they go on a diet. (Children who diet are more likely to be overweight as adults, even if they start off at a “normal” weight.) When your child is hurting, just listen. Stop what you’re doing and get down on their level. They don’t need your answers. They need your presence.
2. Reassure your son or daughter that they’re handsome/beautiful, strong, and intelligent. Affirm their identity and sense of worth.
3. Be kind to yourself. If you’re complaining about being “fat” or “ugly” your child will pick up on that. If you’re a mom with a daughter, your daughter sees you as the most beautiful woman. If you’re a dad with a son, your son sees you as the most awesome dude to walk the planet. Your child may not articulate this, but you are a role model for what it means to be a woman or a man. So, own your own kind of beauty. Value yourself. Your son or daughter will notice this. As they mature, they will begin to follow your example.
4. Finally, don’t wait for the tears to have these conversations. Discuss the importance of character and who they are as a person. Yes, our bodies are part of our identities, but our appearance is only one facet of thousands of other parts that embody our true worth.
Be kind. Be intentional. Take time to listen to your child.
It’s an investment that will exponentially pay off.
I wish I could tie this story neatly with a bow, but I can’t. I know these are the first of many tough conversations. As long as we live in a world that objectifies women and places enormous value on physical appearance, our children will continue to battle with feeling enough.
Melissa is a licensed professional counselor specializing in disordered eating, body image, and self-worth. When she isn’t counseling, speaking, or blogging at melissaCclark.com, you can find her sifting through clearance racks or perusing online for her next travel destination. She lives in the Dallas area with her handsome hubby and two cute kiddos (and a crazy rescue dog).