Promoting positive body image – what do you do?

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Clip Art didn't have any images of "plus size model" so here's an image of a "confident child".
Clip Art didn’t have any images of a “plus size model” so here’s an image of a “confident child”.

I was at a thought provoking round table discussion the other day. The discussion was about fathers and what they can do to promote healthy body image.

The event was hosted by the Equalities Minister Jo Swinson and I found myself in incredibly impressive company. In addition to the Minister there was a Cambridge professor and the founders and chief executives of several charities.

The nature of the discussion dictated that, with one exception, the participants were all male and most of us fathers. I won’t go into detail about what was said during the discussion but I picked up on something very quickly. Almost as soon as the conversation got underway, several of us dads admitted we hadn’t given much thought to body image issues. I’m afraid to say I was one of them.

My thoughts had been limited to the misogyny my two daughters will face. I believe there’s an insidious and creeping misogyny in the media and I’m very concerned about the increasingly sexualised images that my children will inevitably face as they grow up.

There’s an important point to be made here. I only have daughters but body image issues are increasingly affecting men and boys and we musn’t forget this. Indeed, one of the participants was from an organisation representing men with eating disorders.  

I came away from the meeting full of questions:

·         What can I do as a father to ensure my children are confident with their bodies?

·         What can I do as a father to ensure my daughters lead a healthy life?

·         Should my wife and I shield our children from misogynistic advertising and music videos?

·         At what age should we start speaking to them about these things?

·         Should we be speaking to our eldest already (she’s four)?

The point was rammed home to me yesterday when I drove past a primary school. Walking along the road was a young girl of around eight years of age in school uniform. She was being followed a few paces behind by a woman, presumably her mother, pushing a toddler in a pushchair.

To my amazement the young girl had a Playboy-branded satchel over her shoulder. I tried not to be judgemental but I found it desperately sad that a child so young could open to the influence of a brand that promotes sex and perfect bodies.

So tell me mums and dads, what do you do with your children to promote positive body image? Do you do anything? I’d be interested to hear.


17 thoughts on “Promoting positive body image – what do you do?”

  1. This is a thought provoking piece John, and I don’t think I’ve really discussed this with my husband yet with regards to our daughter (who is one). But I think it’s incredibly important for dads, well both parents obviously, to instil a sense of self confidence in daughters – and the body image will come from that. But it has to be the complete package. I remember how important my father’s approval was of me when I was a teenager and this concentrated itself into schoolwork. But I know that he was disappointed that I became a chubby teenager and dressed in black, jeans and big boots to hide my insecurity. The period coincided with a number of things that knocked my confidence but I feel I’d have been more confident if I didn’t feel like I was always striving to please him. I got my required Maths GCSE grade through fear of failing because he would have been cross. This makes him sound like an ogre which he wasn’t at all, he was merely wanting me to make the best of myself but he had no idea how to do that in an unconditional way. It hit my confidence. I lost my teenage chubbiness but losing my insecurities took longer and I think shaped the path I’ve taken in life. My mum has always been proud whatever I did and it has been easier for her to display unconditional love and confidence in me. I don’t know if my dad found this hard because of his age, when he grew up, his ideas of what a woman should be and look like or if he just thought this issue was a woman’s thing but I think this is an issue that doesn’t occur naturally to dads.

    So what can you do? Avoiding ads I think is one idea but incredibly difficult. I think it’s got to be something that’s replicated in every day behaviour – eating healthily but not obsessing, exercising for fun not just for health reasons and making sure that you and your partner appear happy in your own bodies. I want my daughter to think she can do everything, not be limited by gender roles and am very anti-anything that’s labelled as “girls” already. I also join campaigns that not only fight gender stereotyping but highlight strong role models of both sexes – just for ideas of what to tell her.

    It feels like a battle of me against corporations but I think we can get there. Body image is just one part of this – linked to many other issues. Keep on thinking and promoting positive ideas to your daughters. I’m sure they are confident in your love for them but make sure you keep on telling them anyway. It will make a difference.

    1. Thanks Sue – a very thought provoking response, if I may say so without sounding repetitive. Also a very personal response, but that goes without saying! I would, however, wager your experiences are very commonplace (IE a well meaning father perhaps not quite getting it right). Interestingly, one of the comments made yesterday was the positive impact fathers can have when they play an active role in promoting positive body images.

      I certainly hope the Government continues with this work. It has the potential to make a real difference.

  2. At 3 ours are a bit young yet but I know it will be an issue in years to come. I’ve been intent on their avoiding sugary & salty foods as much as possible, & they have what I think is a healthy diet. They love fruit & vege, & we make it clear that ice-cream & chocolate etc are treats, not food. At the same time we want them to have a healthy relationship with food, so they can control it & not vice-versa. We also try to be very active, & get out in the fresh air a lot.

    I’m very concerned about the prevalence over sexual imagery & words in news outlets * advertising in general, often right next to children’s magazines. I think oversexualisation of young children is a major contributing factor to many of our social problems, & I recently signed a petition urging that they should be more covert. Apart from that I’m not sure there’s much more I can do, apart from talk to them when they’re old enough to understand.

    Thanks for an important & thought-provoking post

    1. Thanks for your very kind comments. As regards oversexualisation, I know of a couple that refuse to watch MTV during daylight hours after walking in and finding their young daughter was trying to replicate the ‘bumping and grinding’ she was watching on television (I forget how old she is but I believe the child in question was pre-school age at the time).

      Likewise, we spend time outside being active and treat sweets etc as treats. Having been involved in this round table, however, my wife and I will make more of an effort in future to speak to the kids about these issues to ensure they are confident in their bodies.

  3. Hi. Interesting post. Having daughters really brings these issues into focus, doesn’t it? But as you suggest, boys need to be involved in these discussions too.

    1. You’re right Zoe, boys need to be included in these discussions. Not only are increasing numbers of men admitting to having eating disorders, but there are men in the media that trade on a “pie and chips” approach to body image and pride themselves on being unhealthy. Boys need to be encouraged to find a happy medium.

      As for having daughters, where do you start?? I think you have to raise your children (girls and boys) as cynics so they don’t believe the advertising / media images they face or feel they have to live up to unrealistic expectations.

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  5. Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing. As the mum of boys I agree that they need to be involved in this discussion too from the get go and I try to model as healthy behaviour as I can when it comes to body image and eating healthily. We try not to discuss appearance too much and focus on eating as a pleasure as well as exercise for joy not just for making you slim.

    The sex thing for me is a separate and worrying issue. As a mother of boys I know that despite my best efforts they are likely to be exposed to porn much earlier than I would like and that makes me worried about a range of issues from self image, to expectations about sex to ideas about women and their roles. All I can think to do it to promote a healthy example at home and have an open attitude and dialogue with my boys so that they hear stuff from us first.


    1. Always good to get your feedback Clare. Good also to get perspective from someone that has boys.

      An open and honest dialogue has to be the way to ensure your children have realistic expectations about the opposite sex. Unfortunately I think this is something many parents have trouble with for a whole variety of reasons which is a real shame.

      That said, I’m pleased to see the Government is opening dialogue and seeing what us dads can do to promote healthy body image. It’s a step in the right direction and I hope something positive comes out of it.

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