Ditch the Thigh-Gap Mentality: How to Talk to Your Kids about Health and Food
By Marisa Gooch
By incorporating six simple exercises into your workout routine, you are guaranteed the perfect thigh gap: 10 toe touches, 20 lunges, 30 squats, 40 jumping jacks, 50 toe touches, and a 60-second wall sit. At least, that’s what some Pinterest posts would have you believe.
This unhealthy mindset is ruining our teenagers. Think about it: Your 13-year old daughter sees a post like the one above, repeats the exercises, and finds that her weight isn’t dropping. Feeling insecure and unsuccessful, she resorts to other alternatives that she believes will do the job, like boosting her physical activity and limiting her calorie intake.
According to NEDA, over half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys participate in unhealthy eating or dieting habits.
These habits include skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. In addition, 5.4 percent of teens will suffer either from anorexia or bulimia. Not only do these disorders have some of the highest mortality rates, but they can also create extreme health issues and insecurities, especially in young adolescents who want to be attractive to their peers.
To make the matter worse, many of these teenagers are collaborating with like-minded people on social media. Instagram, for example, has a pro-anorexia community. Users that belong to this community use hashtags such as #proana and #anaismyfriend to promote thinness and to encourage others to join the movement.
While Instagram is trying to crack down on the community by preventing users from searching for words that are related to eating disorders and by displaying a content warning page when questionable keywords are searched for, there are still loopholes young adults have found, making it difficult for Instagram to shut down the community once and for all.
In a society that glorifies thinness, how do you, as a parent, promote a healthy body image within your children? How do you help them love their bodies and the amazing things they can do? It starts with communication, specifically talking to them about what the media depicts as beautiful, self-regulation, the changes that occur during puberty, and the purpose of physical activity.
Discuss what the media depicts as beautiful
There’s social media, and then there’s reality. Make sure your child understands the difference between the two.
Thanks to photo editing apps, people can alter their hair color, eye color, and body shape in photos. Some even go to the extreme of shrinking or amplifying their body parts. That means the blogger your daughter follows may not actually have a waist the size of Barbie, and the fitness advocate your son follows may not be as trim as he appears.
Help your child understand this by discussing what they see on their phones, especially advertisements. Explain that ads are designed to make people feel bad about themselves so that they buy a certain product. It would be worthwhile to show your child the Dove evolution video, a video that exposes how the media shrinks thighs, enlarges eyes, and amplifies lips to create the “best” picture possible.
Another idea is to go through your child’s social media feed together. Ask questions such as “How does this account make you feel?” If your child doesn’t find confidence or happiness through a particular page, encourage him or her to unfollow the page. Likewise, if there is a page that promotes positive body image, encourage your child to follow it. Beauty Redefined, The Alison Show, and The Skimm are a few pages that do just that.
Don’t label food
Your child wants a cookie. So what? Help your child have a healthy relationship with food by avoiding labels. None of this “that’s bad” or “that’s good” business. This doesn’t mean that you don’t teach your child about nutrition. Rather, you let your child self-regulate his or her eating habits.
Children are born with internal cues that tell them when they are full or when something sounds good. They are trained out of these cues when parents say things like “clean your plate” or “You have to finish that.” If children were given access to all types of food, from salty all the way to sweet, they would naturally eat what their body craves and needs. Sometimes this would be veggies, and other times this would be a cookie.
When children are restricted from eating certain types of food, like desserts, they go into deprivation mode. This means that they are more likely to overeat when a dessert is put in front of them. And as they overeat, they could have a feeling of shame and guilt, causing them to develop an unhealthy eating habit or an eating disorder.
One way to help your children develop a balanced and healthy diet is to ask them how they feel when they eat certain foods. Allow them to come to the conclusion of what is good for their bodies and what isn’t through a series of questions. In addition, incorporate them into your grocery shopping. Ask if they prefer grapes or apples, broccoli or squash, etc.
If your child had Oreos for a snack and wants cookies for dessert, don’t say “no.” Rather, say, “Your body doesn’t need a lot of sweets. Since you already had something sweet today, let’s wait until tomorrow.” Doing this removes any good or bad label and presents food as fundamental fuel.
Prepare them for physical changes in their teens
Every young woman and man will go through puberty. That’s just a fact. And as humiliating or uncomfortable it may be for you to teach your children what puberty is, it must be done. Schools will teach them the technical stuff, but they won’t teach your children how to be comfortable with the changes that will occur. That isn’t the teacher’s job—it’s yours.
Do your parental duty and prepare them for body odor, armpit hair, facial hair, weight gain, etc. so that when your children’s bodies grow and develop, they don’t feel the need to cut back on food or to hit the gym to stop those changes.
“Understanding the changes her body is going through will help your daughter feel less embarrassed or ashamed,” says Missy Lavender, founder and executive director of the Women’s Health Foundation. Although she is speaking of daughters, her words easily apply to sons.
By communicating to your children that puberty is natural and necessary for maturity, you can help them embrace the changes rather than feel a need to hide them.
Teach the purpose of working out
Once your children become teenagers, they may want to start working out. Your teenagers should exercise to feel good and to reduce stress. They shouldn’t exercise so that they fit into a size 0 dress or size 28 pants for a party that is coming up. That is what is called compulsive exercise, which, according to The Center for Eating Disorders, can have “long-term negative consequences on health, not to mention on overall fitness and athletic performance.”
So how do you prevent your children from developing a compulsive exercise disorder? You present physical activity as a way to destress rather than as a way to lose weight, and you teach your children that health is determined by how they feel, not by how much they weigh. Encourage your children to do things that make them feel good.
Too many people focus on the cardio aspect of physical activity and push themselves past the point of injury. They don’t understand that workouts aren’t meant to be intense every single time. Further, many don’t understand the importance of taking a break. According to The Active Times, rest days are just as important as working out because they allow your muscles and joints to rejuvenate themselves. Help your children understand this concept and encourage them to set rest days so that their bodies can re-energize and feel good.
Promoting positive body image in your children is a process, and it starts with your willingness to communicate. The more open you are with them, the more likely they are to trust you. Take the time to talk to them about the media, their eating habits, their bodies, and their workout routines. As you do this, you will help them gain confidence, feel healthy, and ditch the thigh-gap mentality.
Marisa is a writer and editor who lives in sunny Southern California. Her favorite hobbies include listening to podcasts, hiking in the hills behind her house, and attempting to surf alongside her husband who has years of experience.