We have actively chosen not to comment on my daughter’s body and weight in my house. Yes, this means we even try to avoid saying nice things about how she looks like, “You are so beautiful” or “Your hair looks so pretty like that.” Not that we don’t think it! I am super biased, and I think my daughter is the most beautiful thing on the planet. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who thinks the same thing about their child(ren).
However, I try hard to avoid commenting on her appearance, body shape, weight, and size. I want to instill in her that she is a valuable person outside of her appearance and that her appearance has no role in her perception of self-worth. Talk that is focused on body shape or size, even things like “You have gotten so tall,” can leave children feeling like there is a problem with their body that they need to fix. And quite often, they don’t have control over the things people comment on. For example, comments about the size of their nose (“What a cute little button nose!”) or their state (“Aren’t you so tiny and cute.”). Often, comments like these leave them feeling disconnected and potentially unhappy with their body.
Are comments really that harmful?
Research has shown that comments (even innocuous ones) about a child’s body shape and weight can be detrimental to their well-being during childhood. A recent study found a direct link between a woman’s dissatisfaction with her weight as an adult arising from how her parents spoke about her weight during childhood.1 Other research found that children as young as three (yes, three!) are unhappy with how their body looks.2
My daughter is four, and she recently came home from school and said, “I hate my legs. They are too big.” I had to sit quietly to collect myself before responding, but all I wanted to do was shout. After all our hard work to influence a sense of body positivity, I had discounted the influence people outside of her household might have.
We sat and had a great talk, and I’ll share some of my strategies for addressing these kinds of conversations below. But this incident got me reflecting, so I asked other moms I know who shared similar insights. They also had family, friends, educators, and even strangers commenting on their child’s weight, shape, and appearance. Some of the comments weren’t even misguided attempts at care. Some were just genuinely mean. It made me wonder how we as parents can best respond when people comment on our child’s appearance.
How to Respond When People Comment on Your Child’s Appearance
Enlist the Support of Friends and Family
If the other person meant well (ie, their comment was misguided but was some attempt at kindness or caring), try to enlist them. Share your insights on the potential harm of talking about children’s appearance and ask for their support.
It might be hard to rein in your instinct to get upset with them, although it is normal to feel that way. But try to connect with empathy. They genuinely did mean well, but they didn’t go about it in the right way. This means they will be pretty open to supporting you and your child if that was their genuine intention. They need some guidance to do it in a helpful and healthy way.
For family or other key people around your child, pre-empt the conversation and let them know your stance on talks about body and appearance. Share with them how you will manage these conversations with your child. Ask them if they are willing to support you. try saying, “I’m aware of how adult conversations about bodies can make even young kids feel unhappy about themselves. So I have decided that we won’t be talking about body shape, size, weight, and appearance in front of (insert child’s name). Can I ask for your support in this?”
Support Your Child
Your child may still hear such comments despite heart-to-heart talks or putting down clear rules and expectations for the people around you (and how they can or cannot talk about your child). You might not feel comfortable addressing it directly, or you might handle it, but the behavior doesn’t change! There might be other instances where people aren’t talking directly about your child’s body, but your child picks up the message about value and self-worth coming from appearances. Take some time to buffer your child from such experiences by using one of these strategies:
Remind them how amazing their body is.
Help your child find other evidence or recall positive experiences associated with their body so they have a wide frame of reference. Remind them of times their body functioned well or positively. For instance, remind them of when they made a home run or learned how to skip. Focus on the function of a body part rather than its appearance. For example, “Arms are pretty amazing! They are made to carry and lift things, and they also help us stay balanced!”
Help them unpack the emotions.
If your child does hear a comment about their body, check-in and unpack it with them. You can start by saying that you heard a comment and wonder how it made your child feel. Or share with them that you are disappointed someone talked about their body in a particular way. Share how you would reframe it or how you would like your child to think of their body instead. For example, “It’s a real shame your aunt said something about your growth spurt. It seems like it made you feel uncomfortable. But you and I know that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, right?”
Be a model for them.
Model your own body positivity and healthy attitude towards food and appearance. These can be things like eating family meals together, avoiding things like talking about diets or restricting food in front of them. Don’t weigh yourself or comment on your appearance in front of your child. Instead, comment on times your body has done something amazing, like, “Whew! I’m tired, but my body feels strong and healthy after taking that long walk!”
Buffering in Action
After hearing my daughter talk about her legs, I sat her down with me for a cuddle. I asked her how she felt about her legs, and she acknowledged that she felt sad. I then asked her what legs do. We talked through some of the functions of legs to remind her that legs have a purpose (besides their appearance). Then I stood up and pointed at my legs and said, “We have different sized legs, don’t we? But do they do the same things?” We agreed that, yes, legs could be different sizes. Still, for the most part, they do the same things or have a particular purpose. (I’m always conscious that not everyone does have functioning legs or legs that work in the same way as my daughter’s legs, so we talk about their function in general terms.)
The conversation is far from over. This won’t be the last time someone makes a comment about her body. But by supporting her and buffering similar experiences, I’m hoping that these are comments and influences she will choose to ignore.
Wansink B, Latimer LA, Pope L. “Don’t eat so much:” how parent comments relate to female weight satisfaction. Eat Weight Disord. 2017 Sep;22(3):475-481. doi: 10.1007/s40519-016-0292-6. Epub 2016 Jun 6. PMID: 27270419.
Tremblay, Line & Lovsin, Tanya & Zecevic, Cheryl & Lariviere, Michel. (2011). Perceptions of self in 3-5-year-old children: A preliminary investigation into the early emergence of body dissatisfaction. body image. 8. 287-92. 10.1016/j.bodyim.2011.04.004.