Because our words hold a lot of power, it's incredibly important to be cognizant of body negative things to avoid saying around kids. After all, we can affirm a person's gender identity by using the correct pronouns. We can de-stigmatize mental illness by talking candidly about our symptoms. It should follow that we can also help someone feel safe and supported on their body positive journey by exercising some mindfulness.
When it comes to children, the words parents or other adults share with them can arguably be much more powerful. Kids are only just beginning to get a sense of the world while discovering their place in it. Although I don't have any children myself, there are plenty of messages I wish I hadn't heard when growing up: Messages that shaped not only body negativity within myself, but in my perception of others.
In a world where dominant messages in media and culture at large are "fat is bad and ugly" and "diets are essential," I don't want my kids to grow up hearing the BS in the safe space of their own household. It's for that basic reason that I feel certain phrases and comments should be avoided within the family. I want to raise humans who knows that their bodies are just as beautiful as all of the other gorgeous and vastly interesting bodies around them.
So here are just a few phrases to consider avoiding in the hopes of doing the same.
1. "You don't want to get fat, do you?"
Avoiding phrases early on that cast fatness in a negative light is a must, IMO, as our fatphobic society will already be sure to stuff some of that negative rhetoric in our kids' faces as it is. Try to avoid framing fatness as something to fear or avoid. Instead, portray it as as something to respectfully embrace in our bodies and the bodies of others. We need it to survive. And having it — in whatever quantity — simply does not excuse tolerating mistreatment from others.
2. "Don't you think you've already had enough to eat?"
From my own experiences, I know that comments regarding diet can quickly bring on intense body image issues, compulsions with food, and even eating disorders. Of course, it's arguably our job as parents to make sure our kids are consuming healthy and nutritious things (to the extent that anyone can afford). But it's arguably not our job to police a growing child on how fast they eat, how big their appetite is, or their proclivity for cupcakes. Avoiding diet-shaming and assigning morals to food might help your kid develop a healthier relationship with it, whereby they can enjoy their vegetables and sweet treats and cultivate a good relationship with both.
3. "Be a man/that's not very ladylike."
I've heard comments like this a lot in my own household and in the households of others. There is truly no health-related, mental, or social goal you can achieve for your child by policing their gender presentation or mannerisms. Please, let your male children paint their nails or your female children fart around you without using gender as an excuse for behavioral restrictions. Sartorial exploration and an understanding of natural bodily functions have both been crucial components of my developing body positivism.
4. "That's not the most flattering top."
From my experiences with my parents, this statement isn't usually meant with mal intent, but it can still be very damaging. My mom has used the remark when trying to communicate how something looked on me by using the vocabulary she learned as a kid. But adopting the word "flattering" around your children teaches them early on that certain clothing is restricted for certain bodies. Let your kids break "fashion rules" with pride, instead, and teach them that no body is more worthy of a garment than any other.
5. "I don't know if you should go out with all that cleavage showing."
As an early bloomer who heard this a lot in their childhood, I can vouch for the fact that this one leads to associating fear and vulgarity with one's body. There's nothing wrong with cleavage. There's nothing inherently sexual about it, either. But the tone often used when this is uttered tends to imply that exposed skin on feminine people is dangerous, distracting, wrong, or all of the above.
Let's teach our girls early on that what they wear is not to blame for sexist or violent actions committed against them.
6. "Ugh, please don't talk about your vagina."
Being uncomfortable with talking about genitalia, forgoing using the proper words for "vagina" and "penis," and needing to whisper when you say the words can create lots of shame around sexuality and nudity for children.
Bodies are weird and cool. I hope to encourage my kid to talk about their own, teach them correct anatomic terminology, and support their desire to explore themselves (preferably in private, of course).
7. "My boss is a big fat jerk."
Please try not use the word "fat" as the equivalent for "asshole," "lazy," or "ugly." As I stated earlier, it's essential that we teach our kids to respect the bodies of everyone, including fat bodies.
Using a body type or identity as an automatic insult will only further perpetuate fatphobia in your child. If ever you feel the need to criticize a person based on their character, consider focusing on the traits that make them a jerk — rather than their body type. This will also prevent your children from associating certain figures with negative character traits.
8. "I feel fat."
Fat is not a feeling. It's a body type, identity, and empowering reclaimed word for many. Let's, once again, stop equating the body type to thoughts such as, "I don't feel comfortable in this outfit," or "I'm a little bloated after all that pizza."
9. "Why don't you wear something prettier/more handsome, like a dress/suit?"
Placing pressure on your kids to conform to the gender binary, particularly if they're fluid or trans, is unnecessary. Try to accept your kid's gender presentation, and honor them in all of their sartorial decisions. If, however, you feel that allowing a masculine child to wear a tutu or a feminine child to wear a flashy outfit might be a general concern regarding safety in particular areas, try to have a dialogue with your children regarding safety and prejudice — rather than attacking their choices.
10."When's the last time you shaved?"
Lots of folks, especially of older generations, seem to have a difficult time wrapping their minds around bodily autonomy regarding shaving being optional. The reality is that policing your kid's body maintenance habits is unkind. Let them do what they feel most comfortable doing, and acknowledge the fact that shaving doesn't "have" to be a requirement unless it makes them happy.
11. "Where's your bra? I can see your nipples through your shirt."
This is one that I've heard a lot in my day, as someone who has always hated wearing bras. But just because your kid has breasts doesn't mean they need to be wearing a bra. It's a personal choice that should be lovingly honored without question. Once again, if you're concerned about safety, it might be best to engage in a conversation regarding sexism and prejudice, rather than shaming them for their choices or comfort level.
Overall, it's important that we stay mindful of our language around our children (and around everyone), teaching them to accept themselves and to respect the bodies of others. In this way, they'll hopefully become as body positive (if not more so) as their parents.
Images: Meg Zulch (2)