End the body-loathing cycle!

How your attitude about your body affects your kids' attitude toward food

I’ll never fit into these jeans! I wish I could look like that actress. I hate my stomach!” These words may seem innocent to a woman standing in front of the mirror but, to a child, they can lead to a lifelong battle with body image.

Media attention on Hollywood stars’ dieting habits, reports on childhood obesity, and apparel designers’ misconception of what is a “normal” clothing size are more than enough to make children look at themselves with disdain. Once their parents join the mix, the result can be dangerous.


“Parents do not cause eating disorders, but family attitudes can contribute to disordered eating behavior,” says Paula Van Aken, MS, RD, the owner of Integrated Health Solutions Inc., a multidisciplinary eating disorder treatment program in Fishkill. “A mother’s negative language about calories and feeling fat has a direct influence on her child’s relationship with food.”


Mara Goulette, DTR, a Poughkeepsie mom and nutritionist, promotes a positive body image in her daughter every day, even though Hope is only 15 months old.

READ MORE: Tips to boost your child's body image


“Everyone always says they want to squeeze her chubby legs,” says Goulette, who also has a 3½-year-old son. “I tell them ‘she’s all girl.’ I just tell her all the time that she’s beautiful.”


When it comes to food, Goulette says, “you put your own dislikes on your family. If I don’t like apples, I probably won’t have apples in the house.”

“I know fruit is good for my kids, so I put it out there and that’s what they’ll reach for. I want them to reach for the fruit bowl instead of the cabinet with the snacks,” adds Goulette. “I want my kids to come home from soccer practice and reach for the grapes or an orange and not chips.”


Children should be taught to eat according to hunger cues and not wonder if food is going to make them fat, advises Bonnie Hirschhorn, a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst and art therapist. And then mom needs to do some self-reflecting to understand why she is uncomfortable with her body. Is it something she learned from her mother? Is it something else? “It’s the inner works that will affect the child,” Hirschhorn says.


While promoting good eating is the best way to raise a child, banning goodies is not the answer. Parents should avoid buying diet bread, diet soda, and diet cookies, and concentrate on limiting portions of those foods that may not be that healthy.


“The child begins to associate certain types of food as ‘bad’ or ‘off limits’, and at some point may start to become obsessive about counting calories and grams of carbs or fat,” says Van Aken.


“Diet is a four-letter word,” she adds. “Concentrate on the health aspects of proper nutrition, rather than constant references to how certain foods will cause weight gain or affect your body type.”

READ MORE: What's a good weight for me?

It’s not all about words and it’s not all about mom either. “Often, a father or coach might say ‘Gee, you could run a little faster across the soccer field if you just lost a few pounds,’” explains Van Aken.


“Such off-handed remarks can have a devastating effect on a young girl, who may already suffer from low self-esteem by not being the star player.”


Non-verbal messages and body language are just as detrimental as negative words. It’s crucial to model not just good eating habits, but healthy self-esteem and good behavior for your kids.


“The child will get the message,” says Hirschhorn, who has offices in New Paltz and Manhattan. Girls will see their mom frowning in the mirror, loosening their belt, or pulling down their shirt to look at their post-partum belly and get a bad impression.


“Moms and kids both need to accept that different bodies can be beautiful,” Hirschhorn adds. “Everyone has a different size and shape. What’s important is what’s inside.”

READ MORE: 3 myths about childhood obesity


Experts suggest watching television and looking at fashion magazines with your children to show them that there are different types of people there. Talk about the media’s use of airbrushing and its concept of thinness and how celebrities go to extremes – plastic surgery, bad diets, brutal workouts – to achieve their look. The National Eating Disorder Association urges people to send pictures of waifish models back to the magazine and explain how the images can be harmful to young girls.


“A mother should try not to place so much emphasis on her looks or unhappiness about certain body parts,” adds Van Aken. “None of us are happy with everything we see in the mirror.”

Liz Consavage Vilato is a mother of two living in Wappingers Falls.