Episode 49: How Our Body Image Affects our Kids

We all know how challenging it can be to feel confident in a society that constantly shifts the goalposts of beauty ideals.  Finding beauty beyond the mirror and nurturing self-worth that transcends our physical appearances is the key to survival.  In todays episode, we’re talking about how our children are watching us, picking up on our cues, and, sometimes without us even realizing it, they’re learning to navigate their own self-esteem journeys based on what they see in us. This is a conversation that’s particularly important for us parents as we guide our children through the choppy waters of an image-obsessed world. 

What you will learn on this episode:

-How our perception of our own bodies can significantly shape our children’s body image

-How our level of self-love can greatly impact our kid’s self-acceptance. 

-The power of affirmations to help us shift how we feel about our bodies


*This transcription below was provided for you or your convenience; please excuse any mistakes that the automated service made in translation.

so happy to be back here again with you guys today. I’ve got a really important topic that I want to talk about, one that’s pretty important for us as leader, parents, to consider, and that’s talking about how we feel about our parents, how we relate to our bodies. Specifically and this is a common issue that comes up a lot in my work it’s like this little ghost of an issue that sometimes takes center stage, but more often than not it just hovers around women, entering their thinking, trying to interrupt their focus and take them down a path of comparison and criticism. And I say trying to interrupt their focus because I think many of us are aware of this struggle and we do a pretty good job of fighting back against the pressure of perfection, particularly our appearance, perfection in our parents. But it’s so, so sneaky.

And you know I noticed this this last week because I was getting my hair cut. And here I am sitting with my stylist, who knows me really, really well. I’ve been with her for like 15 years, so she knows me and I was telling her, like, what I didn’t like about my hair and what I needed to have be different, where it bunched up, how hard it was to do in the morning and she kept saying oh gosh, lee, it’s really pretty, you have beautiful curl. And of course I was describing how frustrated I was with the wave and the curl and because I wanted this straighter look and it was super hard to get it with the length that it was at. And she kind of let me go on and talk for like five minutes or so and then she just kind of got quiet and she said you know, you just aren’t feeling good about how you look, right? And wow, I did not like how that sounded, not because she was rude or out of place or out of line in any way. In fact I think I’m really grateful that she was a safe space for me to kind of talk through how I was feeling. But I was not loving how that sounded because I’ve been really working on this issue, holding my view of myself in this holistic way, being really generous and loving of my parents. 

But when I listened to my complaints and my frustrations as I was telling them to her, I could hear my frustration and my unhappiness. You know I wasn’t that usual calm and peaceful self. I was discontented, just not content with my looks, and of course it’s okay to have this conversation with your hairstylist. This is the person to have that conversation with if you want your hair to be different. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting something different or not being happy with how something looks. But you know, I think what she was saying to me she was reflecting back a feeling that I was having, which was I need this hair to be right because I don’t feel good inside, and that was kind of a quick assessment. I think she picked up on that. I wasn’t really feeling super happy with myself, that I had an ideal in my mind and my appearance was not matching it, and that led to some frustration Pretty common, right, I mean maybe I just think that it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with us. 

I think it means that we’re human and I know I use that phrase a lot, but I really think that’s true. I think we’re programmed, we have ideas of what we want, we set goals, we have expectations. Without these things, nothing ever gets done. This isn’t a bad thing, but I want to. I want to just kind of pose this idea out here that this can turn into kind of a runaway train. It gets away from us where it goes farther and deeper into dissatisfaction, sometimes before we even know we’re there. And I hear this a lot in the work that I do with women. They’re deeply dissatisfied with their bodies at times we as women are especially deeply worried and concerned about our children’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. I mean, we see it as moms. I hear it in what my moms are worried about for their kids, because we see in our children’s attitudes some of their concerns about their appearance. And what I want to talk about today is our influence on our children because, whether we realize it or not, how we feel about our body affects our daughters and our children’s, but particularly our daughter’s, body image. And they don’t teach us that in mom’s school and right, there is no mom’s school, right. So we have to kind of pick this up on our own. 

I think what we do know, that we don’t have to look hard to figure out, is that we are responsible for teaching and guiding our kids through their development and ultimately toward a healthy sense of who they are and appreciation for who they are, all the way through skin to heart and in ultimately developing this healthy self-esteem. And I’ve been asked over and over and over again how do you teach your kids healthy self-esteem, especially in the area of feeling comfortable with and appreciating their physical appearance? And it’s not an easy question to answer. There’s a lot of things impacting how we feel about ourselves, a lot of things that impact how our children feel about themselves. You know, I’ve been telling my daughters since they were very little that they’re whole, that they’re beautiful, that their beauty is not just in their appearance, that it’s in the deep parts of who they are. You might look into your families, to your children, how you’re trying to convey this message to them, and maybe back into your own life, how you were taught this or how you picked this up. 

And I think, at the end of the day, what I’m finding is that most little girls grow into women who are quite critical of their looks my hair is too curly, my hair is too straight, my skin is too light or too dark, my nose is too big or too small for my face, my ears, my teeth, my lips. Research shows us that most little girls are deeply aware of their physical appearance, especially in relation to others, how they compare to others, by the age of five years old. When I read that research, I was kind of shocked. I guess I shouldn’t be, but five seems awfully little. Five seems like those carefree years, right. But this research showed that children at this age are actually aware of the concept of beauty, what is desirable and what is enviable, and whether they have it or not. 

So you know there is an it out there, I put it in, you know air quotes, and I think it’s hard to define it and describe it. And if you ever do find it and get it, what happens is that it changes. It’s just not enough anymore. It’s a moving target. So, we’re in this constant search for beauty. But how do we define it and how do we teach an appreciation for it? You know, I was shopping several years ago with my teenage daughters. 

This was a while ago. The girls, you know, are grown women with their own sense of confidence and their sense of beauty, and I’m very appreciative of that. And I remember this specific occurrence because my girls were in their teens and we were having this really fun day out together where all three of us were shopping and we had taken clothes into the dressing rooms and we were taking turns, coming out in front of the mirror to show each other what we tried on, and when it was my turn, I remember, even to this day, being a little bit hesitant to step out in front of that mirror in front of them. And as soon as I did, one of my daughters said oh, mom, I like it, and I think it was a dress. I can’t remember what we were shopping for. It was something that we had to go to. 

So we were all shopping for a dress some kind of a wedding or a function or something and my other daughter said oh, it’s so pretty on you, mama. And I remember thinking I don’t like it. And I said you know, I don’t know. And they asked you know what’s wrong? What’s wrong? And then I just started pointing out all the things that I thought was wrong with that dress. And you know it really wasn’t the dress that I was pointing out, it was what was wrong with how it made my body look, how I felt my appearance was in this dress. I was like it doesn’t really lay right here. And I pointed to my stomach where, no matter how healthy I eat, I seem to have just that little bit of that role of, you know, extra padding from having all my babies. And my one of my daughters was like yeah, mom, it does, it lays fine. I didn’t even notice that. And I then was like well, are you sure this dress isn’t too young for me? Like, isn’t the color kind of washed me out, don’t you think? And like for just a few minutes. 

I remember going through every aspect of this dress, finding spots of concern, irritations, things that didn’t seem quite right, and I remember it got quiet in the dressing room all of a sudden and the smiles on my daughter’s faces it kind of wilted a little and they were cocking their heads and I could see them looking at me in the mirror, kind of through a different set of eyes, and they looked kind of confused. And I looked back at myself standing there in a very pretty dress with my girls reflected beside me, and all of a sudden I realized what I was doing. For years I’d sat where they were sitting, watching them emerge from the dressing room as six year olds, ten year olds, fourteen year olds, and spent many shopping trips working hard to point out their strengths and their natural and intrinsic beauty and give them support as they picked apart something they didn’t like about themselves in front of the mirror and I knew that they were battling inside their heads with this kind of comparison to the pictures in the magazines or the posters in the store, and even the girls in their school or in the next stall next to them trying clothes on, silently comparing their shape, their weight, their height, their complexion, their skin color two images of what they have in their head that comes from real people and some that are just there, from their own kind of design, their own hope of how they think or want themselves to look. And it’s not a comparison to just one person but to a conglomeration of a super person that embodies these targeted aspects of us all, wrapped up into natural perfection or sexiness that’s achieved in a way that somehow just doesn’t look like. We had to work hard at it and I remember to this day it was a turning point for me. 

I stood there and I realized it was happening to me. I wasn’t looking at myself through my own eyes and I wasn’t seeing myself through the eyes of my girls, who could clearly see my beauty. I was looking through the eyes of not being enough, and that had been carefully created through a long set of years of comparison, sometimes to other perfection, like things you see in the media and sometimes just to my own comparison over the years of what I picked up I should be and that I wasn’t. And for that little moment the roles had reversed. I was arguing with them, everything they pointed out that was right. I was finding something that was wrong. 

I hate it. When you say that. 

My daughter finally said quietly and I could feel a little bit of awareness, start to wake up. When I say what I don’t know, mom, I guess when you say that it looks too young for you, I think you’re dissing yourself and I could feel some defensiveness rise up, as much as I could also feel she was absolutely right 

At that point and I guess I’ve done some work around it. So, I don’t know if I realized it in that moment, but as I thought about this many times over the years, I realized that I’ve grown up hearing my grandmother tell my mother, while I was standing there and my mom was getting dressed to go out at night, that women should dress their age. You shouldn’t try to look younger than you are. So I guess that makes sense where that comment came from that I had, where I was kind of checking in with that rule in my mind. 

So, this was a great experience for me and I remember it. Out of all the millions of things that we do that I, you know, don’t remember how many times have I gone shopping and I don’t remember a single thing about them. 

But I remember this experience because it helped me. It woke me up a little bit. It helped me realize that number one I had some work to do around how I felt about my body, and that there was an option available for me that maybe I could work toward, where I could love my body in the way that I wanted my girls to love their bodies, that little role reversal we had, was so, so good for me. I and I don’t know I should ask my girls if they remember this. I bet you they don’t. I don’t know, maybe they do, I hope. I kind of hope they don’t. I don’t want them to be scarred by it, but I I’m grateful for the experience because it set me on a path where I started to create a different relationship with my body, one that I’m still investing in today. 

Because you know, friends, as long as we live another day on this earth, we age, we change, we give our bodies over to having babies. We use our bodies in service of our goals and our values, and our bodies are not meant to look like 17 year old airbrushed models. 

Our bodies are far more valuable and beautiful than that, and so this is work that I’m still invested in, that I’m still engaged in, and why I’m so sensitive to how it’s showing up in your lives and in your children’s lives because it’s sneaky. Like we opened up this podcast episode with- it’s kind of a sneaky ghost the expectations and comparisons that we have. 

We’ve talked a little bit about building a healthy relationship with our bodies, and this warrants a deep dive on this topic alone, but today I really want to focus on how important it is that we come to a peace with our bodies for the sake of our children. 

We have research that tells us that how we feel about our body impacts how our kids feel about their body. Studies are showing us that mother’s attitudes about their own appearance, as well as being dissatisfied with their body, that those attitudes were associated with their daughter’s body’s dissatisfaction and appearance concerns. One study took a sample of 135 kids aged five to eight years old and interviewed them about the sizes and kinds of figures the kids thought were the most desirous when they were given different choices to choose from. They also asked the kids about dieting and how aware they were of what it was to diet and why people diet. These are kindergarteners, up to maybe third grade, second third grade, and the researchers found that not so many boys had a big preference or awareness of ideal body shapes, but the girls, even as young as six, seven and eight years old. The girls had a distinct awareness of diet culture and they specifically rated their ideal figure as significantly thinner than their own current figure. Now think about this they’re looking at body shapes and they’re six years old and they’re determining that there is a picture of somebody else’s body that is better than their own, a dissatisfaction that’s starting to show up in those early ages. And, when further studied, researchers found that mothers attitudes correlated with their children’s level of body dissatisfaction. So what that means is a substantial portion of young children are internalizing societal beliefs about an ideal body shape in general, well aware of dieting as a means for achieving this ideal, and that there’s a desire for thinness that’s emerging in girls starting at around the age of six, and, ultimately, that a five to eight year olds perception of their own levels of body dissatisfaction were shown to be reflective of their mother’s level of body dissatisfaction. So the more a mama loved her own body and seemed to be pretty positive about it, the better the children were feeling about their own bodies, and vice versa. Here is the summary given by the researchers. Quote given that young women experience mounting pressure to meet societal ideals in the external environment and they refer to external environment as being social media, general media like TV and movies, and their peers, they call that an external environment. So, given that young women experience mounting pressure to meet societal ideals in the external environment, it is important to refocus on the family environment and, in particular, the mother, daughter, sister relationship, as a safe place. End quote. 

Now, before we go deep, before we even dip our toe into any kind of blaming or shaming. That’s not where we are going with this. This is not what this research is saying. It should not be a surprise to us that we have an influence on our children. That’s what this research is saying. 

I think the other thing this data is saying is that we, as grown women, are struggling with this ourselves. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re little girls grown up, so our little girls are experiencing what we probably experienced as kids and we’re still struggling with it to some degree. I think is what this research is saying. So this starts early. Kids are watching us, primarily more than anyone else. They’re looking at how we feel about food, about our weight, how we look and ultimately sensing how we feel about our bodies. So how can we be more of that safe place that the researchers talk about to help our kids navigate this body image journey? Because as they grow, they’re going to be subject to other influences, those external influences they refer to. 

You know, it used to be just the people they were going to come into contact with at school or in your community, but now, with social media, kids are fed a steady diet of images of ideal bodies that are impacting how they feel about their own bodies, people they don’t even know, people they’re never going to meet, people they don’t even know if are real, and this is tricky. Research shows that, overall, social media is negatively impacting our kids’ feelings and beliefs about their bodies, but there is also showing a mixed influence. We’re often kids and I say kids, but I want you to include yourself here, because this is now our world too right, we are also now on social media. So you know what the research is showing that there are instances where we post a photo or an image of our outward appearance and it sometimes gets really positive feedback. We’ll get a like, several likes or a compliment, and then the research shows that self-esteem is positively impacted. So that’s not a surprise. That’s why it’s so enticing. We like the compliments, the reassurance and the validation. 

But think about the measurement tool for us and for our kids’ self-esteem. It’s being shaped by external responses. That’s a lot of power. Others have to make us feel good about ourselves, and my life experience, and probably yours, tells me that no matter how great we think we look and that other people tell us and that we think maybe we’ve you know, captured it in quotes there will always be someone greater, thinner, prettier, more athletic, better dressed, with better fashion style, inevitably someone with more likes or follows or compliments. So this influence on self-esteem it’s a bit of a house of cards, easily knocked down. It’s not sturdy at all. 

We’re posting photos of our outward appearance as a representation of who we are, but it’s such a limited and shallow representation because we can’t post a photo of our inward appearance. Think about that for a minute Like wow. I just thought about how different social media might be without any images, just our words representing our thoughts. What a different metric that might be. I don’t know about you, but this is more of how I choose my mentors and my friends and how I see my children. I’m drawn by the whole person, for who they are inside. 


I’ve seen a massive increase in body dissatisfaction and anxiety about physical appearance in the last years and I think it’s partially because of the social media experience that we are straddling. We’re trying to live in two worlds and we see hundreds of images a month giving our brain details and data. That’s our world and our kids world now, and I think it requires our awareness and it requires us to have a plan, because the truth is we are so much more than our appearance. Our body is so much more than something to be judged. So it helps me. Now I limit social media use. I’m aware when I start to have that comparison feeling like not being good enough, and I make social media work for me rather than me work for it, I do not have time for the comparison game. It’s not helpful to me. I hate that feeling of not being able to love my body, the one that I’m in, because I’ve compared it to somebody else’s. 


A lot of the research shows that as we put our focus on appearance, it may signal a form of self-objectification. This means the degree to which our self-concept emphasizes our physical attractiveness as our largest and most powerful metric in deciding where we fit in and, ultimately, whether we are good enough. Kids as young as five are already socialized into an appearance culture and that, my friends, is our job as parents to address. We can’t just leave it to appearance culture to shape our kids’ self-concept. It’s way too shallow, so misleading, it’s not going to give them everything they deserve to have as they grow and feeling good about themselves. 


I think our job is to push back against the ideal or the perfection standard and ideal is an interesting word. I wonder how helpful ideal is for anything. I wonder if we can catch our tendency to go for the ideal and wish for it and dream about it and just catch that and recalibrate. When I expect the ideal image staring back at me in the mirror, like when I’m getting ready to meet my friend for lunch and I’m critical of my hair or my clothes, can I recognize that I’m not expecting that same ideal from my best friend I’m headed out to meet. Honestly, I could care less if she’s got on makeup or how she’s dressed, so this is like a double standard. They’re rampant for us in this arena. This is where we have an opportunity to make a big difference for our kids, where we can start to treat ourselves like we might treat that friend, be a steady example of stability, putting appearance in its rightful layer, where it’s got a place. You’re going to be clean, take care of yourself, but it’s not a deep representation of a person’s uniqueness and worth. 


So what can we do to help our young girls and boys deal with body image concerns? As I was putting this podcast kind of notes section together, I was thinking what could help us, help our kids, and so I made a little list and here are what do I have? Like seven things that we can do to help our kids have a positive body image or appearance. You know, kind of break free of that appearance anxiety. We’ve talked a lot about the first one setting an example for our kids, modeling that positive behavior about how we feel about our parents, and limiting the negative comments and really focusing on the self accepting comments. Number two, focusing on health as opposed to appearance. So we’re eating healthy. We’re, you know, wanting you to exercise and take care of your body for health reasons rather than appearance related goals. Three we can celebrate the differences and diversity of body shapes and sizes and appearances. Basically, we’re trying to highlight the idea that beauty comes in various forms and isn’t limited to those external ideals. 


Number four help our kids be literate in their media usage. So, when they get a little bit older, talk with them about how media images can be manipulated and even promote that kind of unrealistic beauty standard, so that they can start to think critically about what they’re seeing and make better decisions about how they’re going to take that influence as a comparison for them in how they feel about themselves. Number five let’s emphasize inner qualities. We do this a lot with growth mindset, where we’re focusing on the process, not the outcome. Right, it’s what did you learn in that class? Rather than well, what was your final grade? Because it’s the learning that we value. It’s those inner qualities that we value the kindness, the thoughtfulness, the intelligence, the creativity and the resilience. These are the qualities that draw us to people, that make us fall in love with people, that are at the core of our friendships. Let’s help our kids understand that their worth is not based on how they look, that these deeper things are the anchors in our lives and that they’ve got plenty of those things in strength for them. 


Number six it is helpful if we avoid talking about our weight, I think making comments about how much we weigh and about the diets that we’re on. This is impacting our kids. But, friends, it’s even more than that. It’s releasing ourselves from the vice of that critical kind of task master of constantly being worried and obsessed with how much we weigh. Finally, number seven encouraging self-compassion. Teaching our kids to be kind to themselves and practice compassion for themselves, that it’s okay to have imperfections, that no one is perfect and it’s even okay to not feel okay about their bodies. This really applies to us too, so much that we can show ourselves compassion and recognize that I can still love myself, even if I’m dealing with this kind of tug of war that I have with feeling acceptable and fitting in and having all this comparison pressure around me. 


I think it helps to be able to have some things to say when our kids are going through this kind of pressure, particularly when they’re older and they’ve got this stress about their appearance. It’s sometimes so easy to just kind of argue with them no, no, you’re pretty. No, nobody notices that, oh, you look fine. But I think what’s you know, that’s well-meaning. What we’re trying to say is I’m so in pain for you that you are feeling worried about this, but what we, I think will be really helpful for us to do is to let our children talk about their worries. Be that safe place for them. Give them a little bit of space before you answer and try to reassure them. Give them a moment or two to be able to just say the thing they’re worried about and maybe you can even say you know, I can tell this is, this is bothering you. Tell me more about it. I want to understand. You might find something in what they’re saying that you can relate to. Maybe when you were a kid, maybe you could share that. Of course you, you know you don’t want to make it about you, but I think to be able to say I remember feeling that way. I know, you know, I believe you, I understand and I really hear you. 


Here are some other statements. Now, you wouldn’t say all these at once, but here are some more phrases that I came up with that I think can be helpful when we’re talking to our kids, who are feeling this kind of stress. You are more than your appearance. Your worth is not defined by how you look. I love you for who you are, not for what you look like. You are unique and individual and that makes you beautiful. You do not need to conform to outside standards of beauty to be valuable. Your confidence and inner beauty is much brighter than any physical feature. It’s okay to feel insecure sometimes, but remember you’re worthy of love and acceptance exactly as you are. And finally, I know you are going to get beyond this feeling, this worry, this scary kind of comparison that you’re feeling, and embrace your own love and self-acceptance. I believe that you are going to get through this journey. Kids need to hear these affirming phrases. And as I read this list of things that I had kind of jotted down, you know what we need to say these things to ourselves, don’t we? As I was reading them, I actually got a little choked up a couple of times, because the message is something that I deeply, deeply believe and that I need every day for myself. Of course, we want it for our children, but friends, I want it for you too. 


What if you picked one or two of these statements and said them to yourself each day? I know I said that they were for your kids, but I’m going to go back rewind that. What if these are statements for you and me? What if you and I? What if you know I do it too? We pick one or two of these statements that I just read and I will put them in the show notes so that you can go and you can find them. There’s not a lot of them. I don’t remember how many, I don’t know six or seven, eight of them. But what if you just picked one or two of them and you said them to yourself each day? I’ll do it too. 


Let’s make a pact, let’s try it, because they’re truth. I don’t want you to pick one that you don’t believe is true. No, I want you to pick one that you think is true, and it’s okay. If you don’t yet believe it’s true for you yet, that’s okay. But I want you to use when you pick that statement. I want you to use your upper brain. I want you to pick a couple that you would want your kids to know. 


This is tricky. I’m going in the back door here. I’m going to have you pick one or two that you believe for your kids and that you want them to believe because you think they’re really true. And then let’s pull the switcheroo, let’s have you say them to yourself this week, and so you’re picking them because part of your brain knows they’re true, but there’s another part of your brain maybe that doesn’t really really really embrace it. And this is an exercise. It’s an exercise to become whole brain, to start to repair the little damaged pathways that we get in our brains because of all of these things we talked about today. It’s not a fault, but it is in our power to start to rebuild our relationship with our bodies and with our sense of self and with these truths that we are more than just our appearance. And so I’m going to do it too, and let’s you could bump it up. Here’s that’s the baseline challenge. 


The next level up is to do it in the mirror. Yeah, I’ve actually done a lot of mirror work and it’s hard at first, but it’s really awesome when you do it. So either just say it out loud just once or twice a day, or, if you feel brave, let’s do it in the mirror and see the effect that it can have on you deep within. It’s more than just saying it out loud. We know that our thoughts are powerful. We can work with our thoughts so that we notice our comparison, thinking and judging and replace those thoughts with ones like these that are more deeply appreciative and take us where we want to go and how we feel about ourselves and when we think differently. We’re going to help our kids think differently too. 


Moms, please, let’s develop this relationship so we can love our bodies Together, we can get through the challenges this world is bringing us and that our brains bring us, and we can bond together and get through to the other side, where we’re able to embrace our wholeness and our wrinkles and our skin and our hair on any day, where we could put our focus on the depth of our hearts and remind each other to do the same. I want you to know that I see you. I know I can’t physically see you. I think I know you and I see your wholeness and I see your beauty. Thank you for being with me today. I will talk to you next week. Take care. 

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