Eating disorders including binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa affect 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States. Eating disorders often arise in childhood and early adolescence but are usually not diagnosed until late adolescence or early adulthood. Education about body image, self-confidence, and weight should be taught in a positive manner to young children from both parents and teachers as this can have a positive impact as they develop into adolescents and adults. The National Eating Disorder Associated (NEDA) developed an initiative called “The Body Project” in which researchers have studied the effects of appearance-based ideals on girls and women for two decades. NEDA describes The Body Project as, “a group-based intervention that provides a forum for women and girls to confront unrealistic beauty ideals and engages them in the development of healthy body image through verbal, written, and behavioral exercises.” The Body Project targets girls in high school and college. This initiative can help young girls better navigate their changing bodies and the negative messages they receive through the media in regards to body image, weight, and physical appearance.
The United States government demonstrated its interest in initiatives like The Body Project when, on November 19, 2018, it announced an amendment called the Long-Term InVestment in Education for Wellness (LIVE WELL) Act, which could potentially mandate body image education in federal nutrition programs for all people regardless of weight or body type. The Long-Term InVestment in Education for Wellness Act was introduced to Congress, and if this is passed, it could mandate body image and education in federal nutrition programs (including the public school system) for all individuals regardless of their weight or body type. In July of 2018, New York was the first state to pass a law requiring that all elementary, middle and high school students learn about mental health. Slowly mental health, substance abuse, and body image awareness are being brought into the public school system in hopes of positively impacting young minds.
Tips for parents and teachers on body positivity
- Check Your Own Body Image Issues: How parents feel about their bodies has a powerful influence on kids. Take time to think about ways you might be telling your children about your body image. If you talk about your huge thighs, your latest weight loss diet, or your punishing workouts, your kids will pick up on these negative messages. They will begin to worry about the size of their thighs and think they should be dieting.
- Focus on Health, Not Weight: For your kid’s sake (and your sanity), shift your focus from weight to health. Stop obsessing about numbers on the scale. Instead, concentrate on delicious foods and fun physical activities. Most kids don’t need to work out; they need to play with family and friends. Children shouldn’t be counting calories or restricting their intake. They should be enjoying regular meals and learning how to make smart, tasty snack choices.
- Embrace diversity in body shapes and sizes: Everyone has an ideal weight range for their body, and it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to strive to be outside of that set range. Instead, embrace the fact that we all have a different set range and help your children strive to stay within theirs. Encourage your kids to be critical of unrealistic portrayals they see on TV or in social media: “Wow, everyone on this show looks the same. That’s not how it is in the real world.”