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Cultivating a Healthy Body Image in Kids

With today’s thinning ideal, it’s tough raising children with a healthy body image.

On the one hand, we’re inundated with images of emaciated models (and supposed role models) and ads for waist-whittling diets, while, on the other hand, we’re also bombarded with grave warnings about the escalating obesity epidemic. No doubt all of this confuses parents—terrified that they’re spoon feeding their kids diabetes and high blood pressure, along with a host of other health problems.

Certainly, these kinds of messages are confusing and terrifying for kids, too, who begin to dislike their bodies and want to be thin. To get there, children are restricting their food intake at younger and younger ages. In an article published in The Great Falls Tribune this week, Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter writes:

“Girls as young as 6 want to be thinner, and even one in four elementary school boys now says he’s dissatisfied with his body.
The discontent leads more than a quarter of all kids under 14 to diet to lose weight.”

Eating disorder expert Abigail Natenshon writes on her Web site:

“Camp counselors report 6 and 7 year olds studying nutritional labels on food items as they empty their lunch sacks. A U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services task force reports that 80% of girls in grades 3 – 6 have bad feelings about their bodies, an issue diverting attention from schoolwork and friendships.”

In her blog post—spurred on by the cavalcade of diet and exercise tips and tricks advocated every Holiday season—Rosenleaf Ritter also touches on an important point: the idea that working out and eating well makes us good. She writes:

“Food is neither good nor evil. It’s…food. Those who exercise are not virtuous. They’re moving their bodies. For myself, eating a wide variety of mostly unprocessed foods and getting regular exercise makes me feel good.

It just doesn’t make me good.”

Such messages and thinking trickle down to kids, who start to view themselves as either “good” for abstaining from sugar and other forbidden foods and working out or “bad” for eating dessert and not dieting, leading kids to base their character and worth on their appearance and ability to restrict.

So, as a parent, how can you discourage this dangerous kind of thinking and raise a healthy child with a positive body image?

Here are some tips:

• Don’t focus on appearance. Point out the importance of being healthy, not being thin. Also, make sure your kids know that their personality, talents and skills are so much more significant than physical attributes.

• Teach your kids to view media images with a critical eye. Even kid-friendly shows can promote ideal images. Eating disorder researcher Dr. Linda Smolak tells The Great Falls Tribune that parents should “Limit television viewing and watch with your children.” This way you can instantly discuss any positive or negative images both you and your child see simultaneously.

• Emphasize different body shapes; there isn’t one “ideal.”

• Become a great role model. We know kids are sponges, and they pick up on things you say, no matter how subtle. When you’re complaining about your thighs, why you shouldn’t eat that brownie or how you’ll need an extra hour in the gym to burn off that dessert, your kids are listening and starting to view food, exercise and their bodies like you do. Turn this into a good thing.

• Listen to what kids say about their bodies. Don’t ignore complaints your child makes about his/her appearance and instead discuss them. Take this as an opportunity to talk to your child about why he or she feels this way.

• Promote being active. Make exercise a fun activity—not something you do to shed calories or pounds.

• Encourage healthy eating, rather than dieting and counting calories. Don’t label foods as either “good” or “bad.” Labeling cookies as bad only makes kids that much more tempted to have them. Instead, promote moderation.

If you have any other tips for fostering a healthy body image, please share!


Chakraburtty, A. Building a Healthy Body Image for Children from WebMD: has a good section on tips and how to tell if your child has a negative body image.

Eating disorders prevention: parents are key players from ANRED: an excellent article for parents on preventing eating disorders.

Natenshon, A. Childhood Fears Take New Form: Body Image Concerns In Young Children from Empowered Parents: in addition to this article, the entire Web site provides a wealth of information on body image and eating disorders.

Rosenleaf Ritter, N. Body Image Boosters from The Great Falls Tribune: includes a list of expert tips.

Cultivating a Healthy Body Image in Kids

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Cultivating a Healthy Body Image in Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 Sep 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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