How to Teach Your Kid to Be Body-Neutral

Jul 20, 2017 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Image: Alistair Berg/DigitalVision/Getty Images Plus

If like me, you are new to the concept of body neutrality, you might think it has something to do with the U.N. — or perhaps just imitating Switzerland. However, body neutrality is entirely unrelated to geopolitics. Rather, it’s about finding a mid-ground in your physical acceptance: maybe not passionately in love with yourself — “I look awesome! My elbows are rocking and I truly love my entire abdominal region!” — but also not beating yourself up — “My elbows suck and you could hide buried treasure in my stomach folds. I’m hideous.” Body neutrality means that you’re OK with the skin you’re in.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many of us struggle with the concept ourselves. How, then, do we as parents undertake the large and potentially awkward responsibility of teaching it to our kids?

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The most direct method of teaching behavior is, naturally, to model it. If you demonstrate self-acceptance, your kids are far likelier to mirror it back to you. No problem, right? But maybe you haven’t yet reached body-image nirvana. Self-criticism has a sneaky way of creeping in when we’re unaware. Think about it: do you sigh when you look in the mirror? Talk about something you shouldn’t eat because of the effect it will have on your body? Roll your eyes at the TV when some super-toned celebrity talks about how she got camera-ready in, like, two days after her fifth pregnancy and say, “Yeah, sure — because that’s how you look after having five kids”?

I confess that I’ve been guilty of each of these missteps. Mindfulness of the example you set is your biggest asset. According to a study at La Trobe University, parental modeling includes “expressing negative evaluations about [your] own or others’ bodies… [engaging] in body change behaviors, such as excessive exercising and dieting activities… or [giving] direct instruction, comments, appearance or teasing that reinforces cultural body ideals.” Think about the message you’re sending.

Beyond this, look and listen. Watch how your kids are regarding their own bodies — and those of others — and hear what they are saying about them. If they seem uncomfortable or judgmental, either about themselves or others, ask about it. Comparison and criticism are normal, but talking about it can help to ease overly sharp evaluation.

This is especially important for parents of boys. Body image is often presented as a “girl issue,” and boys are left out of the discussion. But both genders can feel pressured to have a specific physicality. A recent poll in the U.K. found that of 1,000 boys ages 8 to 18, 56 percent believed that eating disorders are a problem for both genders; 55 percent thought dieting was a gender-neutral issue; and 48 percent thought extreme exercising applied to boys and girls equally. Social media and unrealistic (i.e. retouched) media images play a big part in this. Talking about the reasons behind the desire to present the best image, and what might be involved in creating that impression, may help to take back some of that power.

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It’s important to recognize, however — both for yourself and for your child — that even neutrality might be a process. Particularly if you’re inclined toward a less accepting stance, getting to a place of balance may be an ongoing exercise, and one that takes time. That’s OK too. As psychologist Bryan Karazsia points out, we have placed a lot of focus on bodies for a very long time. Body neutrality, he says, wants us to move past that and think about why we’re so hung up on the physical anyway. “The sentiment is, ‘Let’s get over bodies already and focus on more important matters,’” Karazsia says.

Connie Sobczak, one of the founders of The Body Positive, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy physical self-image, compares maintaining your body awareness to housekeeping. As she puts it, “Everyone’s home gets messy from time to time and needs some attention. So when your critical voice comes up, just think of it as a closet that is in need of cleaning. You can’t ignore your closet after a certain point, so you open the door and dive into the mess.”

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It may not be easy to silence or even just turn down the volume on the inner critic many of us harbor. For kids already dealing with the wealth of insecurities involved in growing up, it may be an even greater challenge. So, aiming for a massive celebration of the glorious self may be a bit too much to ask. Indeed, many believe that pressure connected to building a more positive perspective is still pressure and is therefore counterproductive. The most sensible approach, then, may be to attempt a neutral stance: aware, accepting and ideally maybe even appreciative of what our bodies can do for us — and less critical of how they appear.