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A Guide for Building a Positive Body Image in Kids

A Guide for Building a Positive Body Image in Kids

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What You and Your Kids Need to Know About Body Positivity

Love the skin you're in. That's the central message of the body positivity movement. And on the surface, it seems like a pretty solid message. After all, isn't that what having self-confidence is all about—feeling good about who you are at the core, regardless of what the package is wrapped up in?

But some experts are concerned that body positivity still keeps people—especially tweens and teens—focused on appearance. People are urged to love their bodies, but the reality of personal acceptance is much more nuanced. Much of body positivity involves recognizing (and working to replace) the fatphobic, anti-Black, and ableist structures that support our society. And that work takes time and dedication.

As a parent, you may be confused about what all of this means for you and your kids, and how to begin to introduce them to these concepts. How do you make sure your kids develop a positive body image without making appearance too important? Ahead, we'll break down what you need to know, including what experts have to say about helping your kids develop a positive body image.

What Is Body Positivity?

In its purest form, the body positive movement aims to celebrate and uplift every body, particularly those that society has deemed "less worthy"—Black bodies, fat bodies, disabled bodies, and more.

The body positive movement was founded in the 1960s by fat, queer Black women.1 Their goal was to destroy these pervasive notions and to liberate marginalized people and bodies. Since then, the movement has grown.2 Today, people of all races, genders, and ages are included, and working toward a world where no one's body is looked down upon.

Since its origins, much of the conversation around body positivity has centered around celebrating every body. While this is an important part of being body positive, it is only part of the equation.3 Body positivity cannot exist without also acknowledging how many bodies are still less valued than others.

All people deserve to have a body positive image, regardless of how society or popular culture views shape, size, and appearance. The overall goal of body positivity is to challenge how society views and defines the body while promoting the acceptance of all types of bodies.

"Nobody should be treated poorly solely based upon their appearance," says Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S, a licensed professional counselor with Good Therapy. "Nor should anyone feel guilt or shame related to their appearance or merely for existing in what society defines as an unattractive body....The movement was originally designed to be one of liberation, not acceptance."

Ideally, proponents of body positivity hope that it helps people build confidence and acceptance for who people are. When done well, body positivity can help tweens and teens understand and accept their changing bodies.

The movement was originally designed to be one of liberation, not acceptance.

They also can learn to speak freely about their insecurities and consider the possibility of liking themselves for who they are. They accept their bodies and do not have to conform to society's ideas of what the ideal body should be.

Downside of the Body Positivity Movement

Some experts are concerned, though, that all of this body talk is just another way to reinforce image-consciousness. In fact, many believe it is healthier to not talk about bodies at all. They suggest that viewing content about the body too frequently—even as part of the body positivity movement—can lead people to obsess about body positivity.

It is OK and quite normal, to not love every part of your body or to have days that you don't love your body as much.

Experts might ask—why are we talking and thinking about bodies so much when we say they don't matter? All of this focus can put a lot of unneeded pressure on people, giving them one more thing that they have to live up to—being positive about their body even when they may not always feel positive. But it's also important to remember that these forces aren't inescapable. Part of becoming body positive is working to throw off the oppressive weight that self-love has morphed into.

"Is it really realistic to love our bodies every day no matter what, no matter how we are feeling, thinking, or acting?" says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist, consultant, and clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. "It is OK and quite normal to not love every part of your body, or to have days that you don't love your body as much."

Research has even found that when people repeat positive affirmations that they do not actually believe in, the results tend to have the opposite effect. People are left feeling even worse about themselves than they did before.

Dr. Goldman says those "shoulds" put added pressure on young people. When they cannot meet those expectations, they can feel like a failure, that they are not good enough, or that something is wrong with them when really they are just human. 

Dr. Goldman encourages young people to be realistic and accept that there may be days when they do not fully love bodies. The focus should be not on appearance but instead on function. In other words, what can our bodies do for us?

"If we can appreciate what our bodies do for us, it helps us be less critical of our bodies and less body/appearance focused," she says. "We start to appreciate our bodies as more than just a number, shape, or size. We are also then able to identify ourselves related to what we are capable of."

The Erasure of the Body Positivity Movement's History

Another major issue in the body positivity movement as we know it today is that it has evolved too far from the original movement's foundation.

So much of the current conversation focuses on self-love, while ignoring the movement's mission to support and celebrate fat, Black, and disabled bodies—and challenge the systemic barriers that are still in existence.

While it is important to practice body acceptance, true body positivity comes from centering bodies that have long been ignored and mistreated. In accepting our own bodies, we must also call for societal change so that all bodies are accepted.

Why a Healthy Body Image Is Important

Helping your teen establish a healthy body image is important. When they feel good about their body, they are more likely to have a positive self-esteem as well as a balanced attitude about eating and physical activity.

Your body is something you show to the world and it is directly linked to how you feel about yourself.

"We know body esteem is part of self-esteem," says Gabrielle Schreyer-Hoffman, PhD, a psychologist in New York. "Your body is something you show to the world and it is directly linked to how you feel about yourself."

Likewise, an unhealthy body image is directly related to low self-esteem, which can lead to a number of issues like depression, social withdrawal, or eating disorders, says Heath. In fact, research has found that body dissatisfaction is directly linked to disordered eating, particularly among adolescent girls.5

Young people who feel down also are more likely to dwell on negative messages, make comparisons, and strive for the "ideal" body. Ultimately, these things can lead to the development of risky dieting and mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

"Dieting behavior most often leads to depression, increased body weight, feelings of guilt and shame, and an overall sense of dissatisfaction with one’s body," says Heath.

How to Instill a Healthy Body Image

As a parent, nurturing a positive body image is a crucial element in helping your kids grow into healthy, well-rounded adults. Here are some ways you can help your children develop a healthy body image.

Think About Your Messages

When helping your kids develop a healthy body image, it is important to think about the messages you want to convey. You want your kids to see the value of their bodies, without focusing on appearance or aesthetics.

"Help your children identify what their body does for them, as well as other things they like about themselves—their abilities, skills, and talents," suggests Dr. Goldman. "Comment on their abilities and skills, so these are the messages they are hearing."

It’s also important to have conversations about our bodies and how they change, especially as children grow, develop, and go through puberty, she says. It’s important to expect changes, and know that it is normal. Remind kids that there is no "perfect" body, and that all bodies are different and unique.

"If you notice your child speaking poorly about themselves or putting too much emphasis on their body, their shape, or their size, help them challenge their thoughts," she says. "Another tip is to remember that our body is a part of us, but does not define us. We are so much more than just our bodies, so it’s important to send the message that our body, shape, size, weight, etc. does not define who we are."

Be a Good Role Model

When helping establish a healthy body image, it is important that you are setting a good example for your kids. Watch how you talk about your own body or the bodies of others. How you view your body will communicate more than you realize.

"Being a role model of acceptance of self and others is one of the most important things we can do as parents," says Heath. "Children follow our examples of how we treat ourselves and others. Negative body talk establishes a value system related to appearance that is consistent with the unattainable standards of beauty in our society."

Parents also need to model a healthy relationship with food and exercise, Heath says.  Avoid any direct or subtle messages about having to "earn" food.

"Food is not something a person has to be worthy of to consume," Health says. "We do not have to exercise to deserve our meals and snacks, for example."

Address Social Media

One of the biggest influences in a young person's life is social media. Not only is it a vehicle for connecting with peers and family members, but it also can have a huge influence on body image and mental wellbeing.

"Recognize that social media is such a big part of their lives," says Dr. Schreyer-Hoffman. "They are inundated with images and they are much more focused on the way in which they present themselves online and the conversations around social media."

She suggests looking at the accounts they follow and finding out what they feel about these images. Do they think they are realistic? Do they understand that photos can be altered or that filters may have been used?

You want to ensure your kids understand that what they are seeing online may not be realistic. It's also important to offset how saturated social media can be with other positive beliefs and values.

"Celebrate individuality and the importance of our bodies and their functions early in order to build a positive body outlook," Dr. Schreyer-Hoffman says.

A Word From Verywell

The body positivity movement is designed to help people accept and love their bodies. But the pressure for kids and teens to be positive about their bodies even when they don't always feel that way can seem like an impossible standard to live up to.

Instead of focusing on body positivity, appearance, or weight, build your child's self-confidence and self-esteem in other ways by talking about how kind they are or how hard they work. While kids need to learn to love and appreciate their bodies, try to keep the focus on what their body does for them instead of what it looks like.

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