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5 Real Ways Parents Can Beat the Pressure to be Thin

In today’s world, parents and kids alike feel the pressure to be thin. The sentiment, “raise healthy kids,” implies avoiding the other extreme: childhood obesity.  This push to “fit in” or to look a certain way, particularly as they get older, is real. Some call this the “thin is in” ideal, or the belief that your health is directly related to your body thinness–and this message is everywhere.

But here’s the catch: we aren’t all meant to be thin. And thin isn’t necessarily healthy for everyone.

So, how do you manage the message that in order to be healthy, you must be thin? And how do you equip your kids so that they can navigate these messages with a realistic, level head?

First, we want you to understand what you’re up against.

The Media: I don’t think anyone will argue that the media is a strong and growing influence in a child’s life.  As kids mature, media sources become a greater influence (and an important part of their lives).

Many media messages convey thinness as the standard for beauty and success, and to be happy one must be thin.  What parent doesn’t want their child to be happy and successful?  It is easy to become prey to the mindset the media encourages.

Beautiful Bodies: Advertisements idealize a body that is atypical of normal, healthy females and males.  According to a study by Olds (1996), a young woman between the ages of 18 to 34 has a 7% chance of being as thin as a catwalk model and a 1% chance of being as thin as a supermodel.  Smolak’s research (1999) found that fashion models were thinner than 98% of American women.

Most images of today’s models are further modified with editing and airbrushing (called photo-shopping).

Researchers Rodin, Silberstein, & Striegel-Moore (1984) suggest that constant exposure to these types of advertisements may make girls self-conscious about their bodies and obsess over their physical appearance as a measure of their self-worth.  This can lead to poor body image, which has been linked to dieting and risky behaviors around food and eating.

The Sobering Stats: More than one out of three “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting with one fourth of those suffering from partial or full blown eating disorders (Shisslak and Crago, 1995).  Many adults I counsel that struggle with eating disorders can pinpoint comments made about their bodies when they were kids that provoked their first drastic diet.  Click here to learn more about the parent’s role in preventing eating disorders.

Second, we want you to understand that your influence is greater than anyone or anything else.

It’s impossible for you to control all the negative influence your child will encounter on a daily basis, but you can promote positive messages in your own home.  The following tips can help you beat the “Thin Is In” ideal.

  1. Be a model of healthy self-esteem.  Avoid making negative comments about your own or others’ weight.  Make an ongoing effort to stop talking about your “imperfect” body parts in front of your kids and promote the idea that every body is beautiful.  Fake it if you are still figuring out your own issues with food and eating.
  2. Value your child no matter what.   Choose to tell your child you love him/her for what is inside, not because of how he/she looks.  Support extracurricular activities where your child can excel and that don’t primarily focus on looks.
  3. Pinpoint unhealthy media messages.  Challenge unhealthy media images out loud when with your family, children, and friends.  Support products with advertisements that feature “normal” looking people and thoughtfully choose your child’s media exposure.
  4. Don’t follow drastic diets.  Choose nutritious whole foods when possible and enjoy treats occasionally.  Have a neutral view about all foods and avoid labeling foods as “good” and “bad.”  Offer balanced family meals as often as you can!
  5. Exercise for health and enjoyment.  Move your body for strength, health, pleasure, brain power and/or stress reduction.  Avoid exercising in obsessive or self-punishing ways.

Do you find the “Thin is In” ideal influencing your child? How do you manage it?

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  1. Great post, and for me, so timely. I do think I am a very good role model for my kids and follow all your advice above. Just a few days ago, my almost 10 yo daughter asked me for the first time (in tears), “Do you think I’m fat?” Apparently her friend had make a joke to her about it, and although my daughter knew her friend was joking, she still was very affected by the comment. We had a great talk about it, and I reinforced to my daughter that she has a healthy, strong body and that everyone has their own body type,and she should treat her body well. I also told her that she can be a role model for her friends and help them to honor their own bodies and treat them well. We’ll definitely keep the conversation going because this is such an important topic! Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Yes, the conversation will keep going. I have young teens and it still comes up and I suspect it will come up until adulthood! I use the “did you know?” approach with my girls when they ask questions; facts help and reinforcement of their greatness and your love for them too. I did write a post awhile ago called “Do you think I’m Fat?” and interviewed a child therapist for the post…you may enjoy reading that too.