Radio 4 recently ran a short podcast entitled ‘How to help your child with their body image‘ by Aric Sigman. In this, Sigman claims that the adults in children’s lives (often the parents) can compound the negative effects of the media’s use of ‘slender images’. The idea is that parents can unwittingly transmit their own body dissatisfaction to their children, thus creating a ‘compound (or additive) effect’.
Although the role of the media in body image is an important one, today lets focus on the role that parents play in the development of children’s body image. Sigman suggests that there are easy steps that parents can take to help protect their children, beginning by not voicing their own body dissatisfaction. This should include avoiding more subtle forms of expression, for example, not using diet books, scales, or discussing weight or image concerns in front of children.
This strategy is very simple, and is consistent with Social Learning Theory – a well established psychological theory that suggests that children learn through modelling the behaviour they see around them. While clearly role models can include peers, wider family members and television or media personalities, the first role models that children are exposed to are usually parents. To this extent, parents should be especially cautious about how they behave in front of their children, to avoid unwittingly passing on bad habits. As Sigman says, ‘Parents who hate their bodies are more likely to produce children who hate their bodies’.
The podcast also notes the importance of discussing any body-related concerns with children. In particular, countering and addressing children’s worries will allow open discussion, as well as the opportunity for reassurance and support. As we know, any opportunity for discussion is beneficial for mental wellbeing, and developing these habits from an early age paves the way for positive family relationships.
However, it is Sigman’s final advice that we might consider to be most useful, not only for children’s views about their bodies, but also for their mental wellbeing in general. He suggests that the key is to stop self-focusing; claiming that those who develop body dissatisfaction have an attentional bias to look and think about themselves physically. His advice is therefore for parents to engage their children in other pursuits – ones that they enjoy and are interested in. In particular, he suggests focussing on their talents, skills, strengths and achievements, so that they ‘put their self-esteem eggs in baskets that are not physically based’.
This latter advice is timely and pertinent for a variety of reasons. Firstly, research has shown that focusing on others improves mental wellbeing. One of the often cited problems with modern life is that it is increasingly isolated, self-focussed and self-interested. Thus we could reasonably suggest that rather than focussing on oneself (literally navel gazing), which could increase the likelihood of body dissatisfaction and other psychological problems, it would be more beneficial for us to try to become more ‘other focused’. Indeed, a growing body of research has suggested that feeling connected to others can have a variety of positive outcomes for all aspects of health and wellbeing.
Furthermore, prioritising looks or appearance is likely to increase not only dissatisfaction with the self, but also one’s life more generally. While this is true of all of us who are subjected to increasingly unrealistic body ideals, it is particularly so of young people who may be yet to determine or understand the unattainable physical standards presented in the media. To this extent, a drive to focus on characteristics or skills that they have some control over and that can be developed or worked on, is likely to provide a multitude of positive outcomes for both self-worth and mental wellbeing.