Fitting In While Standing Out
Volume 1: 6 Tips to Help your Child Cope with Feeling Fat in a “Thin is In” World
By: Dr. Robyn Silverman
originally printed as one of Dr. Robyn’s monthly columns
You probably wouldn’t believe it if you had heard it yourself. MaryBeth, a mother of three, came to me in a panic. Her daughter, Madeline, who had recently turned six years old, had been standing outside by the pool with her 2 friends, Hallie and Rachel, when the snubbing began. Marybeth witnessed Madeline’s 2 friends slapping their bellies and whispering to each other. Hallie spoke first. “You can’t be our friend anymore, Maddie, ‘cause you’re 55 pounds and we’re only 45 and 47 ½ pounds.” Rachel continued, “Yeah, 6 year olds like us shouldn’t weigh more than 50 pounds. If you are, it means your fat… and fat people are ugly.” At that, Madeline ran to her Mom, and whimpered, “Mommy, am I fat and ugly?” while the other girls jumped into the pool.
As a body image and child development specialist, I believe I have heard it all. Too fat. Too short. Too flat. Too big. Too scrawny. These stories, while plentiful, are never easy to hear.
We used to think that “fitting in” had mostly to do with how your personality meshes with your friends. But in today’s world, when everywhere from Hollywood to New York is preaching extreme thinness, “fitting in” seems to have more to do with how you appear on the outside rather than who you are the inside. And, unfortunately, those parents who thought that they didn’t have to worry about body image issues until their children became teens are being sideswiped in the head by a large dose of reality.
No child should ever feel that s/he is “worth less” because of how s/he looks. When it comes to society’s messages that “thin is in” and “fat is faulty” what can we do to help our children remember that it’s what’s inside that counts?
(1) Show children that everyone comes in different sizes: Let them know that on the normal bell curve for weight, children fall in all different places. Some are lighter and some are heavier. It’s normal for children to gain weight at different rates and at different times during their childhood. Some shoot up like weeks and then gain weight while others gain weight and then grow taller. What’s important is that each child is healthy and active NOT that each child is at the average weight for his or her age group. Of course, if you’re concerned about your child’s weight or weight progression, contact your pediatrician for advice.
(2) Don’t compare: Even within families, siblings will put on weight at different times and at different rates. Pointing out that one of your children is putting weight on faster or is heavier than another sibling, can be interpreted as a criticism that s/he is not fitting in to what is “normal.” Given societal messages regarding dieting and thinness, especially those delivered to young girls, it’s easy for children to interpret seemingly innocuous comparative comments as judgments of a child’s worth.
(3) Watch the media that comes into your house: A lot of magazines and TV shows hail thin frames and denigrate bodies that are not thin enough according to Hollywood standards. When someone once said, “a picture’s worth a thousand words” they were right. Research shows that media has a large impact on the way children feel about themselves and how they judge others. If you see something that celebrates very thin figures or denigrates those who are not thin, talk about it and ask your children what they’re take is on the subject. TV shows and books that confirm that people come in all shapes and sizes, can also be extremely helpful. (I use a self-published book for my own presentations on this topic. If interested, please contact me directly through http://www.DrRobynSilverman.com or http://www.DrRobynsBlog.com)
(4) Be aware of your language and behaviors: If you’re hyper-focused on weight and looks, your child will pick up on it. As they say, “monkey see, monkey do.” You are your children’s role model and superhero. They want to be just like you and they want you to be proud of them. So when a parent looks in the mirror and says “yuck,” their children may wonder if you think the same thing about them. Young people follow your lead so be sure to show them what a healthy body image (not just a healthy lifestyle) looks like.
(5) Expose them to different activities and people: When children have the opportunity to meet different kinds of people and do different activities, they learn about and develop strengths. Other people show them that children can be good at all different things and how someone looks does not determine their worth or their abilities. A wide array of activities like team sports, martial arts, hip-hop dance and drama can help children develop confidence in what they can do and who they can be without hyper-focusing on weight and appearance.
(6) Stress your values: Raising your children to determine their true friends by who they are and not by how they look, is helpful in several ways. First, they’ll attract people who think similarly. Second, they will be more apt to judge themselves by the strength of their values rather than how thin they are. And third, they will be less apt to surround themselves with people who base friendship on appearance.
But most of all, be patient and supportive. Be prepared for your children to change shape and size often during childhood. Growing up and out can be confusing and even anxiety-provoking for children who are trying to “fit in.” Helping all young people feel worthwhile, valued and capable no matter what weight they are at, is vital to the development of positive body image and self esteem.
Look for Volume 2 of Dr. Robyn’s article series “Fitting in When Standing out” when she covers Tips to Help your Child Cope with Feeling Short in a “Tall is All” world.
Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman is a Massachusetts-based child and adolescent development specialist whose programs and services are used worldwide. She is also a success coach for parents, adolescents, and educators, who are looking to achieve their goals, improve their lives or improve the lives of others. She is a writer and professional speaker who presents to PTAs, schools, parents, and organizations that focus on children or families. Interested in doing some coaching with Dr. Robyn or having Dr. Robyn present a seminar at your child’s school or at your business? Go to www.DrRobynsBlog.com for more information.