What Not to Say to Kids About Food and Body Image

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How we talk to kids about what they eat and body image can lead them down the path toward disordered eating.

As a child, Amee Severson was completely immersed in diet culture. Her mother and aunts were caught in a vicious cycle of fad diets and what they referred to as cheat periods. When she became a chubby pre-teen, Severson says she was taken to a dietitian who weighed and measured her once a week. The dietitian placed her on a strict regimen that left her “always feeling hungry” and constantly “beating myself up over my body,” she tells KCM. 

Before she even hit puberty, Severson learned how to count calories and kept a record of her every meal. “It really set me up for a long period of dieting and hating my body,” she says. 

Severson’s experience isn’t uncommon. It stems from a deeply flawed way of thinking about nourishment and our very narrow view of the physical ideal. And communicating those ideas with children, whether explicitly or not, has the potential to cause lasting harm, says Severson, the co-author of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater

“We all grew up in this culture, and it’s really hard for most people to overcome our own discomfort with our bodies,” she says. “But the risk of instilling these beliefs about body size in our kids is tremendous.”

A better way to talk about food

Feeding children is challenging. Maybe your little one refuses to eat anything that’s brown or too sticky, or won’t touch a plate that has more than three things on it. Most kids have their quirks when it comes to food and, as a parent or guardian, it’s only natural to feel anxious about that. But that anxiety has led many of us to resort to speaking in a code, of sorts, about food with children. 

We use so many labels — “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “good” or “bad” for you, a special “treat” or something that must be cleaned from your plate. That tendency to categorize food leads children to develop a sort of “black and white” way of thinking about what we ingest, says Ally Duvall, a body image program manager at Equip — a company providing virtual treatment for eating disorders. Oftentimes that can lead kids to actually crave the “junk” food or the snack they’re told isn’t good for them. It’s human nature, Duvall says, to desire forbidden fruit. 

Placing food on a moral spectrum in this way can also cause kids to develop a sense of shame or guilt about eating the “wrong” things, Duvall says, which can lead to bingeing, restricting, and other forms of disordered eating. 

Labeling food is so ingrained in our culture that it can be hard not to use that type of language at your own dinner tables. But the key, Severson says, is to maintain neutrality in how you’re describing foods as much as possible and to just call a certain dish what it is. Like, instead of calling a popsicle a “treat” or a “reward” on a hot summer day, just call it a popsicle. 

“Not discussing food as good or bad, right or wrong, OK or not OK — seeing food as just food — allows it to become normalized, not only in the household but in our lives going forward,” Severson says. 

It may be hard for some parents to square this concept with what they view as the day-to-day struggle of making sure their kids are properly nourished. Some of you might be saying, If I don’t tempt my kid with cookies, there’s no way he’ll eat his veggies. That concern is totally understandable, Severson says. But by creating these rules around food, like limiting carbs or making sure they’ve taken in their daily dose of greens, you’re really keeping a child from trusting their body. And that’s what’s at the core of the intuitive eating concept — allowing ourselves to tune into our body’s biological signals for hunger and satisfaction and let that set what, when, and how much we eat. 

If you’ve fallen into the pattern of dangling dessert as a way to get your child to finish their dinner, Severson suggests just serving all that food at once. It helps children see foods as neutral and not placed in a hierarchy, and it can help cut down on food fights. And instead of using something sweet to bribe your kid into taking that bath or nap or whatever it may be, try offering them a small toy or even an experience, like a trip to the playground, instead.

A better way to talk about bodies

The same philosophy applies to how we should talk about bodies, too, Duvall says. Attempting to remain neutral when discussing different body types is key. And, like with food, it’s not an easy thing to do because fatphobia is so deeply embedded in our culture. 

Duvall suggests cutting out terms like “flattering” or “slimming” or “problem areas” and not making a habit of commenting on changes in people’s weight. Using that type of language to describe someone’s appearance comes so naturally to most of us, but it’s really enforcing this idea that there is an ideal physique (slender and toned) that we’re all striving for, and that some body types fit within that narrow concept of beauty or health and others don’t. 

But staying neutral can be especially difficult when it comes to talking to kids or teens about clothing, in part because the language of fashion has so many insidious phrases baked into it. Clothes are marketed as “hugging curves in just the right way” or “concealing trouble spots” — and teens can latch onto that. But when talking to kids about apparel, Duvall suggests focusing more on discussing their personal style, or how they feel or are able to move in that new dress.

Describing bodies as they are — “thin,” “fat,” “chubby,” etc. — can feel uncomfortable because those descriptors are laden with such heavy connotations. That may be, but a growing number of people are embracing terms like fat, which are still broadly viewed as derogatory or insulting, as a way to neutralize stigma. Fat bias has been documented for decades but as a culture we still tend to venerate “athletic builds” and “long, lean figures” while viewing fatness as inherently bad and something to be remedied — but by using “fat” in everyday language Severson and others hope to erode this way of thinking.

“Being fat isn’t a bad thing,” Severson says. “It’s just a body size, like short or tall.”

Part of what makes changing the way we communicate with kids about food or bodies so difficult is that many of us have wrestled with body issues of our own or have a damaged relationship with food, Duvall says. 

“That can make a lot of parents really want to shield their own children from that type of experience, so they can fixate and sometimes end up reinforcing these things without realizing it,” she says. 

But one powerful thing any parent or guardian can do to help set their kids on the right course, Duvall says, is to be open and honest about their own struggles and “learning and growing together.”