Does Criticizing Our Own Bodies Damage Our Kids' Body Image?

New research explains the impact of negative body talk on our kids.

Posted Jul 25, 2018

Most of us have been there: We complain about our belly getting too big or our pants feeling too tight or we ask our partner, "Do I look fat in this?” In fact, it’s become so commonplace in our weight-obsessed culture that we often don’t think twice about these types of comments. But how does our body bashing affect our children’s body image and capacity for mindful eating?

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

A new study by Webb et al (2018) examined the impact of overhearing family “fat talk”* (which they defined as verbalizations of self-depreciating evaluations of one’s own body) on a daughter’s body appreciation and mindful eating. They posited that hearing “fat talk” from one's family may reinforce notions of a thin ideal and self-objectification (the internalization of an outside observer’s perspective in relating to one’s body), which in turn may make women less attuned to the internal workings of their own body, eat less mindfully, and rely more on environmental or other external cues to guide their eating.

Results of the study indicated that, indeed, overhearing family members participate in “fat talk” was inversely associated with mindful eating, body appreciation, and body functionality. In other words, the more that children were exposed to family “fat talk,” the less likely they were to eat mindfully or to appreciate their body either generally or in terms of how their body functions. In contrast, more frequent mindful eating was associated with higher levels of body appreciation and body functionality.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

This study adds to a growing body of research supporting the harmful effects of negative body talk in the family environment, and shows us that even indirect negative body talk (i.e., conversations between parents not directed at the child) can lead to less mindful eating, more disordered eating, less body appreciation, and more body dissatisfaction in children which persists into adulthood.

So the next time you want to express something negative about your body, take a pause. Kids hear and absorb every message we send to them, even the subtle ones. If we are to set them up for a positive experience with their bodies, we must be the example. If you need support in healing your own body image, please seek out treatment with a therapist trained in body image and size inclusivity.

     *Note: In the research study by Webb et al (2018), they use the term “fat talk” to describe negative body talk. For the sake of consistency in this post, I use the term as well. However, I think this is a problematic term as it implies that fat is a negative attribute and describing oneself as “fat” is describing oneself negatively. The Health At Every Size ® and Fat Acceptance movements are working hard to neutralize the word “fat” as a general descriptor, rather than a pejorative insult. The fact that negative body talk is termed “fat talk” speaks to the weight-bias that is prevalent in our culture at large, including the eating disorder community.

Alexis Conason is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of overeating disorders, body image dissatisfaction, psychological issues related to bariatric surgery, and sexual issues. She is the founder of The Anti-Diet Plan (sign up for her free 30 day course). Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

References

Reference: Webb J, Rogers C, Etzel L, & Padro M (2018). “Mom, quit fat talking—I’m trying to eat (mindfully) here!”: Evaluating a sociocultural model of family fat talk, positive body image, and mindful eating in college women. Appetite, 126: 169-175