Worried parents often come to my psychotherapy office, wondering how to teach their children to have a healthy attitude toward their bodies. These parents have heard their adolescents and pre-adolescents make comments like ‘I hate my thighs,’ or ‘I’m so fat and gross,’ or ‘Why do I train the same amount as the other boys and never get muscles?’ They also watch as their children make unhealthy choices with food, neglect sleep, and slouch with shame and body self-hate. These parents fear the development of eating disorders, steroid use, and poor physical health. They want to teach their wonderful children how to love and respect their bodies.
The whole idea of loving one’s body, however, is confusing. What does it even mean to love your body? One day, as I walked our dog around the block, it hit me. Loving our bodies is a lot like loving a dog:
- Loving our bodies means placing respect, value and importance on physical needs for regular nourishment, fresh air, motion, and touch. Just as neglecting to value these needs is a complete rejection of a dog, it is also a complete rejection of our bodies.
- Loving our bodies means investing time and energy into building a nonverbal, unique, and ever-evolving relationship. Like dogs, each of our bodies has its own particular needs and preferences that change over time, but does not have words to communicate those needs. As a result, figuring out what our bodies need takes ongoing relationship-building, with patience and attention.
- Loving our bodies means recognizing that they live in the moment. This means that we have to be the ‘big’ brain for them – the ones who see the big picture and anticipate consequences of choices. Just as we would not let our dog eat two pounds of raw cookie dough, we sometimes must differentiate between our bodies’ momentary wants and its true needs, and may have to say no to some of our body’s desires.
- Loving our bodies means exerting control through respect and cooperation. Neither dogs nor bodies just do what we tell them to. We need to have realistic expectations and then give them the support, consistency, and guidance to reach those expectations. When they do not ‘behave,’ it’s not that they are bad. It is that we haven’t properly supported them toward those behaviors, or that we have unrealistic expectations.
- Loving our bodies means accepting that they are what they are. No matter how little a Great Dane eats, it will never be a Chihuahua. No matter how much exercise a Chihuahua gets, it will never be a Great Dane. We can either accept that our body is basically a certain shape and size, and become the healthiest of our ‘breed,’ or we can live in continual denial of reality and frustration with our bodies.
- Loving our bodies means being patient with the time it takes to adjust to different routines and unfamiliar surroundings. Just as a dog is uneasy with change, so are our bodies – even if it’s a ‘good’ or fun change. During and after transitions, we must be supportive and gentle with our bodies.
- Loving our bodies means accepting that all bodies, like all dogs, have physical impurities, imperfections, and messy parts. Our bodies are not perfect or pure. Basing our sense of self-worth on whether we are physically perfect or pure is as ridiculous as seeing our dog as bad for having an asymmetrical face, hip dysplasia, or bad breath in the morning. Similarly, trying to make our bodies pure or perfect through extremely restrictive diets or chronic use of plastic surgery is as misguided and potentially dangerous as it would be for a dog.
- Loving our bodies means being trying our best not to use them as whipping posts for our anger about other things in our lives. Just as a bad day or feeling bad about ourselves may lead us to become annoyed with our dog (just for being a dog!), we also may focus our anger and frustration onto our bodies, blaming them for all that ails us. This is unfair and damaging.
- Loving our bodies means getting back what we put in. Just as our dog repays us with loyalty and vitality when we care for its needs, our bodies reflect the care that we invest in them. The more we provide a balanced life for our bodies, the more balanced, calm, steady, and reliable our bodies will be for us.
- Loving our bodies means doing what we can to care for them, while also recognizing that there are limits to our ability to protect them. Like a dog, our bodies get sick even when we try our best to take care of them. They also never live long enough, age in sudden jumps, and die before we are ready to let go.
Most of us were never taught anything about how to love our bodies. A lot of us are lost in a sea of media and social pressures to look a certain way and conflicting and unrealistic ‘expert’ advice about how to be healthy and disease-free. When you model and teach these basics of a healthy body relationship to your children, it can be an important part of helping them (and you!) to move toward sustainable health and wellbeing. And even if your teen rolls his or her eyes and continues to complain about fat thighs or narrow shoulders, or refuses to get off the couch and take a walk, be assured that you are doing what you can to embed the seeds of body respect into your child’s psyche, and that at some point those seeds will bloom.