Body image

Parents can get a hard rap when it comes to their own self-image, and there is potential for their insecurities to be mirrored by their children without any intention whatsoever. The most important thing we want as parents is to raise our children with a positive self-image in all areas. So how do we get over our issues and raise a happy healthy family? Angela Pedersen takes a closer look.


I always thought that being a new mother would give me some reprieve from the social expectation of having the "perfect body". It seemed to me a "birthright", so to speak, that for once in my life as a woman, I could be free from the self-imposed and socially expected need to be slim. Surely pregnancy and having a baby should be the most acceptable time to take the focus off of my weight, size, and body image?


Unfortunately, it is so ingrained in some parts of our society and individual psyches that even in pregnancy, for some women, the need to watch their calorie intake has become an obsession - and a very unhealthy one for the baby and the mother, both during pregnancy and post-birth, when fat stores are required for breast-feeding your newborn. 
      We also see so many celebrities having babies and returning to their so called "pre-pregnancy body" within a few weeks of childbirth. Who can forget super model and host of Project Runway Heidi Klum's 2005 postpartum strut down the runway in a lingerie fashion show, only eight weeks after the birth of her son? Trim, toned, and be-thonged, Klum worked the catwalk amid gasps of disbelief that any woman could look so good - and be willing to show it off in public - so soon after giving birth. I certainly wasn't that confident eight weeks after the birth of either of my children. And I don't believe any woman should have to be. The whole preoccupation with weight and body image has distracted so many of us from what is really important, and it's affecting our children. The very way that our bodies were made to nourish our children during and after pregnancy - through gaining weight and storing fat to breastfeed - is almost being stolen from us, with the societal expectation that if "they" can get their bodies back so quickly, why can't we?
      The reality is, it's unfair and unnatural for us to starve our bodies to achieve this goal. We know this is the case, but we continue to expect so much of ourselves, especially when there is so much else going on while you're nurturing and caring for a newborn, helping him or her to grow into a well-adjusted, treasured human being.
      Many of the celebrities who seem to quickly return to their pre-pregnancy figures were so well underweight in the first place, that putting any weight on their bones would only make them look more healthy. They go on unrealistic diets that aren't good for their bodies, and start high-intensity fitness regimes almost immediately after giving birth. Don't forget the personal chefs, trainers, housekeepers, nannies, and other people who look after them and their children every day. We "normal" women are fortunate if we have our husbands and partners to support us in the first few weeks after the baby's birth, just to get to grips with the new person in our world, and all of their needs and requirements.
      Society's obsession with the "perfect body", celebrities, and staying slim is now interfering with something taboo, something that is precious and should be protected - the image of a mother and child.
      The whole preoccupation with weight and body image has distracted so many of us from what is really important, and it's affecting our children. Dr Maree Burns, Coordinator at the Eating Difficulties Education Network (EDEN), has examined New Zealand women's experiences of bulimia. Dr Burns has published a number of articles and recently coedited two books about disordered eating. She notes some interesting and saddening research:


•  80% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies at any one time.
•  Recent research suggests that girls as young as five years old express concerns about their weight and are knowledgeable about dieting practices.
•  Roughly half of girls and a third of boys aged between six and eight years old desire a thinner figure. A further third of the boys desired a larger figure.
•  Children as young as seven years old are deliberately engaging in restrictive eating behaviours.
•  Girls as young as five years old understand societal beliefs that it is "desirable" to be thin and evaluate their weight status in a manner consistent with this ideal.
These are scary statistics, but they are ones that we as mothers and parents can directly effect. The first and most important way is by shifting our own self-image paradigm, which is a hard task in itself, but important to effectively undertaking the second method - to role model and build a healthy self-image in your home environment.

What defines you?
One of my favourite sayings is, "You're not Superwoman, but you are a super woman." As women, we can be so hard on ourselves for so many reasons. We strive for perfection, and when we slip up or fail, we really beat ourselves up about it. And some of us give up.
      Nobody is perfect - we are all wonderfully made in different shapes, sizes, and colours, and this diversity is what makes each one of us unique and beautiful. There is no other person in this world like you, so trying to fit into a "societal mold" that, realistically, no one on this earth would ever fit into, is not being true to your authentic self - the person you are inside; the person that your friends and family know and love.
      Our body image is not what defines us as women, mothers, wives, and the many other roles we have. It is our wisdom that we have developed over the years, the love we show for those around us and have for others, our moral fibre and values, the way we overcome hurdles in our lives and achieve our goals - these things show our real beauty. It is when we focus on these positive things that we are made strong and confident role models for our children - role models who provide wisdom, guidance, and love.
      If we define ourselves around the ever-elusive achievement of an ideal we can never reach, what are we modelling to our children? When we're in a constant state of disappointment with ourselves in some way, we are weakened by our own negative self-talk. How can we be confident role models if we are constantly disappointed with ourselves?

Your body has been good to you

While a healthy weight and regular exercise are both good things, actually liking the body you are in regardless of what shape it is in has far more advantages. Your body has withstood a lot in your lifetime - the cuts and bruises of falling over as a child, the spots of your teenage years, sunburn, hangovers, childbirth... The list is long. But what an amazing design it has, that it has healed itself and continued to let you get on with life. 
      Your body is like a child's height-measuring chart on the wall. Each mark, scar, and line can tell a story of a happy time, a sad time that made you stronger, and, more recently, the miracle that it was able to nurture and nourish a new life inside it for nine months and then continue to provide that beautiful child with the food it needed to live for at least the first six months of its life. Amazing.

      Here's the thing: You will never get your pre-baby body back. You may come close, but there will always be a little bit of extra skin, or a scar, or stretchmarks to remind you of your child. This is something that you should embrace and be proud of. Why not take a step towards loving your body - perhaps take the "I Love My Body" Pledge?


I Love My Body Pledge
I,...................., pledge to speak kindly about my body.
I promise not to talk about how fat my thighs or stomach or butt are, or about how I really  have to lose five or 10 kilos.
I promise not to call myself fat, or any other self-loathing, trash-talking phrase. I vow to be kind to myself and my body.
I will learn to be grateful for its strength and attractiveness, and be compassionate toward its failings. I will remind myself that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and no matter what shape of size my body is, it's worthy of kindness, compassion, and love.



Who are your friends?
Like it or not, we are all affected by peer pressure - some good, some not so good. The norms we create between our peer groups can be a bonding activity for us and something we commonly share. When we make talking about our weight and self-image with our friends good old girl talk, it can be amusing, when put in the right context and with the right mindset.
However, there are instances and friendships that can make being the "right size" almost a competition, and these friendships can be toxic. The extreme instance of this is the case of friendships developed through websites that make being anorexic a competition.
      Dr Burns comments, "We all need to reflect on what we role-model to our friends and the other people we interact with. We have the potential to influence the norms in these friendships, and to be aware of what we say and do and the way this either reinforces or challenges fat or diet talk. It's not about blaming individuals, it's about what is socially influencing us and our peer groups are a big part of that."

      So how can we make a difference, and how do we do it in a way that doesn't offend? I have recently told my friends and family that if I talk about my weight or myself in a derogatory way in front of my children, I would like them to stop me in my tracks.
      Equally, I don't want weight to be a topic spoken about in front of my daughters, because I don't want it to be our household norm. My hope is that not only will it help me in my own quest to change my self-image, but also show to my friends and family that this is important to me and is my way of making a difference. 

Role models at home
Recently my husband was trying to figure out how to dig out a tree in the back yard with our two-and-a-half year old, Ella. When it came to a difficult point, he said to his trusty sidekick, "Oh, no, Ella! It's stuck. What shall we do?"
      Ella's reply was hilarious - she put her finger to her chin, tilted her head to one side, and said, "Hmm... Thinking, thinking, thinking." Then she pointed one finger in the air said, "Oh, I know! Chop it down, Daddy!"
      We were amazed and amused - we didn't know where she had got this from. It's not something that we remembered having said or something she would have heard from her friends, so where had she picked it up? We figured the "Chop it down, Daddy!" Probably came from the banter she was hearing while my husband was cutting the branches off and digging the stump out. A day or so later, we worked out that the "Thinking, thinking, thinking" and associated mannerisms were something she'd seen on a Winnie the Pooh video.
      This little anecdote illustrated to me that even when we're unaware that our children are listening to us, what we say in their presence can be heard and interpreted in a child's own way to create their own perception of what we have discussed. Put simply in this context, if we're always talking about how we need to lose a few kilos or were "naughty" eating certain types of food, our children become aware of weight and image issues and it becomes a "norm" for them. If we're always talking about how we need to lose a few kilos or were 'naughty' eating certain types of food, our children become aware of weight and image issues and it becomes a 'norm' for them.
      Dr Burns notes, "Young children are aware of dialogue in their homes about weight and of messages about parents' own body dissatisfaction, and it is possible that this awareness may place girls at risk for early dieting."

      Dr Burns is hot on the tail of this point in saying that "Mothers and parents do get a bad rap - it's not the fault of mothers or fathers, because as a society as we all reproduce the cultural and social influences that are reflected in the home environment." But now that we are aware, we can make a difference. Research suggests that families can play a powerful role in countering the development of eating concerns and body dissatisfaction in children.

So how do we encourage a healthy self image?Dr Burns suggests the following:
1.  Accepting ourselves and encouraging our children. Embrace the things we and our children are good at and our skills and abilities, how each of us interact with people, how generous we are and how caring we are, etc.
2. Trying not to have good/bad food mentality. Food isn't "good" and "bad". Focus on healthy eating and keeping a balanced mindset about food and not depriving yourself or your children of "treat" foods. Teaching moderation from a young age, are all important.
3. Working not to normalise dieting in the household. Research has shown older girls and preteens who see mothers dieting end up dieting themselves. This is not to lay blame on mothers, but to understand our part in modelling healthy eating (and an active lifestyle) rather than dieting.
4. Modelling intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are satisfied. It is eating a wide range of nutritious foods and not eating to a prescriptive diet plan. It is listening to your appetite and having flexible eating times, not necessarily just three times a day. Being in tune to what you body needs means your appetite will fluctuate. This also means avoiding repeating what most of us have grown up with - the good old "If you don't eat all your dinner, you can go to bed!" or "Clean your plate. There are children starving." This is teaching children to continue eating even if you're not hungry.
5. Showing kids you love everything about them. Appreciate them for all wonderful things they do and are. Show them that they are beautiful no matter what, and it's what is on the inside that counts. This is a powerful message: You are showing them you love them for who they are, not what they look like.
6. Instituting family meal times. If it's possible, enjoy a few family meal times together each week and make it a pleasurable activity. It will help to build positive family and food experiences. Avoid getting into battles with food or making food a control issue. Ellyn Satter's books are good at outlining good family eating habits and how to avoid making food issues a battleground in your house.
7. Being aware of the media. Keep an eye on what your child is being exposed to, this includes magazines that flaunt fad diets and thin celebrities, commercials before the kids' bedtime, cartoons, DVDs, story books and, to some extent, toys that promote unrealistic body shapes.

Shift the focus

As a child, I always looked up to my mother. She worked from home and taught me a lot of homemaking skills that I can now pass on to my daughters. But best of all, she taught me a mother's love. I really think the mother is the heart of the home, and we as parents need to focus on the important values that will make our children intrinsically good and encourage their dreams. 
      In her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin writes, "I was told being a woman was about freedom of choice, a culture of caring, a spirit of resilience and courage...I concluded that being a woman meant spending time on the important things - community building, learning, teaching, loving, listening, birthing, caring for the dying."

      What Martin is saying is that we know there are far better focuses to what we should be teaching our children. So what small steps can we take to achieve this?
•  Make a meal together for someone who needs a hand, and take it over.
•  Sponsor an underprivileged child and write regularly to your sponsored child.
•  Teach a craft to your children. I recently remembered how to knit - only the basic, knit-one-purl-one, enough to make a scarf - but that was enough to keep my daughter entertained, interested and learning as she watched what I was doing and tried to "help". It was an amazingly relaxing and lovely time to spend with my daughter.
•  Get your child to collect old toys that they no longer use to take to the Salvation Army for other children to play with and enjoy. The same goes for good used clothing and other outgrown items.
•  Teach your child the basics of kindness, respect, sharing, caring, and being thoughtful about others.

See yourself through your child's eyes
Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, and I was recently humbled and given perspective when my two-and-a-half year-old daughter, with no understanding of my own self-image ups and downs, said to me, "Mummy, you're beautiful!"


About Eden
The Eating Difficulties Education Network (EDEN) is the only community service in the North Island dedicated to supporting individuals with an eating issue and providing education and health promotion programmes in the community designed at preventing disordered eating. The agency receives no government funding and is reliant on grants from philanthropic trusts, donations and its own fundraising efforts.
EDEN partners with the Dove Self Esteem Fund, whose support enables the agency to provide BodyReal training, a workshop on self-esteem and body image in schools.
To find out more about EDEN, BodyReal, or to make a donation, please visit .
Eating Difficulties Education Network (EDEN)
Phone (09) 378 9039


Angela Pedersen is the founder of and OHbaby! Magazine's Managing Director. She and her husband Royce have two daughters, Ella and Eva and a son, Jesse.


Further reading
•  Real Kids Come in All Sizes, by Kathy Kater
•  Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming, by Ellyn Satter
•  Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, by Ellyn Satter
•  How to Get Your Kid to Eat, But Not Too Much, by Ellyn Satter
•  Healthy Kids Happy Kids: Better Health for Larger Kids in New Zealand, by Lynda Finn

Abramovitz, BA and Birch, LL. "Five-year old girls' ideas about dieting are predicted by their mothers' dieting." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 100 (2000): 1157-63.
•  Davison, KK; Markey, CN; and Birch, LL. "Etiology of body dissatisfaction and weight concerns among 5-year-old girls." Appetite 35 (2000): 143-51. 
•  Frank, ML. "Raising daughters to resist negative cultural messages about body image." Women & Therapy 22.4 (1999): 69-88.
•  Kostanski, M and Gullone, E. "Dieting and body image in the child's world: Conceptualization and behaviour." Journal of Genetic Psychology 160.4 (1999): 488-99.
•  Lowes, J and Tiggemann, M. "Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children." British Journal of Health Psychology 8 (2003): 135-47.
•  Martin, CE. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. Free Press: New York, 2007.
•  McCabe, MP; Ricciardelli, LA; Stanford, J; Holt, K; Keegan, S; and Miller, L. "Where is all the pressure coming from? Messages from mothers and teachers about preschool children's appearance, diet and exercise." European Eating Disorders Review 15:3 (2007): 221-30.
•  Schur, EA, et al. "Body dissatisfaction and dieting in young children." International Journal of Eating Disorders 27.1 (2000): 74-82.



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