How to Talk to Your Children About Weight and Body Image

If you’re a mama reading this, you’re probably a late 80’s or early 90’s baby. That means you grew up in the era of Special K, Weight Watchers, Heavy Weights The Movie, and Tyra Bank’s America’s Next Top Model. You probably were told something about your body at some point in time. Whether that be an offensive comment from a middle school boy about your stretch marks or your doctor telling you to lose weight as an adolescent. 

Nonetheless, here you are. Now a grown woman with tons of conflicting messages and advice ingrained in your head, but a deep and gentle heart towards your sweet babies. 

If this is you, I’m glad you’re here! If this isn’t you, feel free to stay. 

The point in bringing this up is that we were not told that some people have different-sized bodies. We were not told that weight is not a behavior. And we were DEFINITELY not told that it is OKAY to be in a bigger body. 

It might be a long journey for you to unlearn many of the messy messages that you received as a child. In the meantime, I wrote this post to provide you with practical tips to help create a new view on weight and health so that you can encourage your children as you continue to learn (or unlearn) and grow yourself! 

mom and daughter chatting in bed!

1.) Explain to Your Children that Weight is Not a Behavior 

This may be the first time you’ve heard this. I’ll say it again, weight is not a behavior. Let it sink in for a moment. 

If weight is not a behavior – meaning it is not a controllable factor that we can easily change without taking extreme measures. Yet, as of 2023 weight loss is still the number 1 recommendation for the pursuit of health.

However, there are a ton of behaviors that we can control! For the most part at least. And these are eating, movement, sleep, stress management, alcohol, and tobacco use.  

These are factors that we can control and directly impact our health and well-being. 

So let’s focus on these things when we talk to our children about health. You don’t have to say a word about weight! I promise. 

Further, research shows us that a fixation on weight is likely to lead to disordered eating and/or eating disorders.

Talk to your children about the benefits of having a well-balanced diet. You can say, “Kiwi, strawberries, and bell peppers are great sources of vitamin C! Remember when you got really sick last week? Vitamin C helps your body fight off those nasty viruses!”

You see, you can talk about nutrition and the role food has in our lives without worrying about the number on the scale. 

You can also talk about the benefits of movement. For example, “When mommy goes on a run it helps strengthen my heart, lungs, and muscles so that I can stay healthy and strong to love on you!” 

I love these blog posts that further explore how to talk to your children about nutrition: Kids Eat In Color Healthy Diet and Eating Recommendations for Kids, and The Skimm Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Bad’ Food.

2.) Explain to Your Children that Small Bodies Do Not Equal Better Bodies 

Something I’d like to clarify first is that the message is smaller bodies = better bodies and bigger bodies = undesirable bodies. Smaller bodies are the bodies that are being praised, and if you’ve ever heard a message that bigger bodies are better, then know that no body size is better. 

A smaller body is the result of one of the following: 

  • Genetic makeup 
  • Eating disorder and/or disordered eating habits 
  • Stage of life 
  • Mental Health Status 
  • Access to Food 
  • Activity Level 
  • Illness or disease 
  • Drug or Medication Use 

This is not the end of the list necessarily, but the point is, that a person is in a smaller body for one of these reasons (more often than not, the first 2) and therefore they are not a better person or in a better body because of it’s size. 

3.) Teach Your Children That Small Bodies Do Not Equal Healthier Bodies 

In addition, a smaller body does not equal a healthier body. Refer to the above list of reasons someone might be in a smaller body. 

Do any of these sound healthy to you? Sure, the individual might be healthy, but it’s not because of their body size. 

A healthy body is a body that honors hunger and fullness and moves in a way that is gentle, joyful, and accessible. Incorporates gentle nutrition aiming to consume a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, protein, and fat, while simultaneously selecting the foods that they enjoy and have access to. A healthy body is one that is attuned to its limits and rests, sleeps, hydrates, and avoids stressful situations when applicable. It says no to drugs. It says yes to receiving help whether that be from doctors, family, therapists, or medication if needed. A healthy body accepts the stage of life it’s in and is at peace with the fact that it is ever-changing. 

Body size is not a determinant of health and you do not know what people are going through to be in the body size they are in. 

4.) Do Not Talk About Your Weight, Body Size, or Perceived Body Imperfections In Front of Your Children 

DO talk about these things with a trusted friend. You do not need to pretend you don’t have body insecurities.

What you say about your body – the body that created your children and may even look very similar to your children – will directly impact the way they view their bodies. It will also impact the way they view other people’s bodies. 

If you tear down your body, they are indirectly being told they should tear down their bodies too. You are all they know. What a gift! 

mom and daughter dancing together in kitchen

And if you do accidentally say something negatively about your body, that is OKAY! That is a great opportunity to teach your children about vulnerability. You can say, “Hey what I said about my body earlier is a result of a deep insecurity I gained as a child. I have been working through it, but some days the way I perceive myself is not a true reflection of myself. I’m sorry that I projected that on you, will you forgive me?” 

You are not perfect and the more you recognize that and call it out in yourself, the more free your children will feel to make mistakes and recover peacefully without shame. 

5.) Set Boundaries with Your Child’s Healthcare Provider

You have the option to ask your child’s healthcare provider if your child can do a blind weight. This means your child steps on the scale backward and then steps off without knowing their weight. 

You have the option to ask your child’s healthcare provider not not discuss weight in front of your child. Whether that be that your child’s weight is on track or not on track, this is a conversation your provider can have with you in private or by writing a note. 

You also have the option to ask your child’s provider to discuss nutrition and exercise without mentioning weight. You can say, “We appreciate and value your expertise and advice. Would you mind discussing your behavior recommendations without bringing up weight, BMI, or body size? Thank you!” 

You want the best healthcare provider for your child, right? Well, a good healthcare provider will not only accept your boundaries, but also challenge their own knowledge and beliefs, and dive into some research. 

Don’t forget that blood pressure, heart rate, blood markers (like hemoglobin, glucose, vitamin D, cholesterol, etc.) head circumference, GI function, hair/skin/nail growth, and many other factors, are all reliable and direct measurements of health. Look at these factors! Not weight! 

If your provider is hesitant or curious about your boundaries you can share with them a few resources:

6.) Let Your Children Know That Some People Are Misinformed About Weight, Including Some Healthcare Providers

Let your children know this. You will run into this at some point in time. Whether it be a coach at school, a pediatrician, a GI specialist, an aunt, a cousin, or an influencer on TikTok. 

In my *personal* opinion, it helps to explain to children that people have different specialties. A football coach specializes in football, a GI specialist specializes in the gastrointestinal tract, a TikTok influencer specializes in marketing, and not everyone specializes in nutrition and the human body. 

We don’t want to talk badly about professionals, friends, or family, but we do want to clarify that not everybody is an expert in human nutrition. 

Here are a few examples of what you can say, 

  • “I know your pediatrician told you to lose weight. But since we know that weight is not a behavior, we know that this was an outdated piece of advice. Let’s ask him to look at our measurable health factors like blood pressure, heart rate, and blood lipid panel, and see if he has any tangible advice depending on what these are.”
  • “Oh, your health teacher told your class that the keto diet is one way to be healthy? Well, remember that some teachers have received outdated advice and are only teaching you what they were taught. Maybe in your next class, you can ask your teacher ‘Is the keto diet for overall health and well-being or for weight management?’ If they say health, you can reply, ‘but this textbook explains that our bodies need 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates to provide energy for all major organs including the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and digestive systems. Do you think that keto could possibly be just a means of weight control and not health?” You can also encourage your child to sit back and teach them about these concepts privately.   
  • Last one, “Your friend said her mom put her on Weight Watchers and now you want to make an account also? Well, remember your friend’s mom has probably been told most of her life that weight is something she should control. But we know that when we eat intuitively the result is a healthy weight and Weight Watchers can’t predict this.”

Registered dietitians are the experts on this subject and it is a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian if you are curious about nutrition and the human body. 

7.) Don’t Keep a Scale in The House 

Once again, weight is not a determinant of health. Therefore, you do not need a scale in your home. 

Of course, if your child has a medical concern such as renal issues or a diagnosed eating disorder that requires parent weight checks, a scale would be necessary. 

However, if there are no medical concerns – and let me clarify that obesity is not a medical concern that should require weight checks –  there is no reason to have a scale in your home. 

If you are struggling with your relationship with food, body, or weight, and keeping a scale is something that you’re working through, I would recommend processing this with an eating disorder/disordered eating registered dietitian and/or licensed therapist. 

8.) Buy Your Children Clothes That Fit 

Oddly enough, this is one of those hidden contributors to negative body image. Children receive hand-me-downs or clothes from their parents that “should fit them” but they don’t. They’re too small. 

Let your child be in the body size they were designed to be and buy them clothes that fit. I understand this is an expense. If it’s not in the budget let people in and reach out for help. Let your children know that they don’t have to change their body size. 

9.) Have Ongoing Healthy Body Discussions as a Family 

Talk about all of these things and more. Keep it an open conversation. Include your spouse in these conversations, and if they are open and willing, include extended family. 

If you have had one informative conversation with your children about body weight, don’t assume they are good to go! 

Their bodies are constantly changing. You don’t have to pry it out of them but stay aware, open, and curious. 

If your child comes to you asking to go on a diet, don’t assume it’s your fault, or that you have educated them enough and they shouldn’t feel this way. Ask them questions. Validate them for how they’re feeling. And then remind them of their worth. Let them know that they are loved no matter what they look like or what they do. Even if that means falling into diet culture, remind them that they are still loved. 

10.) Accept Your Child for Who They Are and The Body Size They’re In

If you teach your children how to honor their health, the likely result will be a healthy weight. They might go through seasons of mental health struggles and gain weight, they might go through seasons of insecurity and lose weight, or they might stay at a relatively stable weight their whole life. Regardless of their weight, you have an amazing job as their parent and you get the opportunity to show them that they are loved and valued no matter what their body size is.

Get help when they need help. But let them know that even when they are struggling you still love and accept them.

On that note, here are some resources for eating disorders and disordered eating:

Eating Disorders Helpline

ANAD Free Eating Disorder Support

Growing Intuitive Eaters (online blog, podcast, free courses, and YouTube videos)

Bottom Line: 

Weight is not a behavior and it is not a determining factor of health. The way you view your body will directly impact the way your child views his or her body. Keep your healthcare provider and other family members informed about the various ways you can encourage a healthy lifestyle. Focus on the function of foods, movement in a fun and sometimes gentle way, stress management, and honoring mental health. Let it be an ongoing journey and don’t hesitate to ask questions and continue to learn for yourself! 

Written by Sheridan Glaske, MS, RDN, LD 

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