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The body positive movement for children and how to teach it

It's all too common for children to diet, binge eat and struggle with fears of getting fat. Here's how to change that.
Katie Crenshaw, pictured here with her daughter, co-authored "Her Body Can," a body positive children's book for kids ages 8 and under.
Katie Crenshaw, pictured here with her daughter, co-authored "Her Body Can," a body positive children's book for kids ages 8 and under.Body Can Books
/ Source: TODAY

As parents become more aware of the importance of a positive body image, many moms and dads are wondering how to teach body positivity to their children.

It's a subject that matters deeply to Katie Crenshaw, co-author of the body-positive children’s book “Her Body Can.” Crenshaw was in the sixth grade the first time she began restricting her diet in an effort to be smaller.

“While I was always a genetically thin/standard size, even as a child I knew how larger bodies were viewed and judged in society, by boys at school (and) by my family,” Crenshaw told TODAY Parents. “I’d do anything to not be that. Bigger kids were excluded, pitied and bullied.”

Crenshaw recalls spending hours on "pro-ana" (pro-anorexia) websites and printing out "thinspo" ("thinspiration") photos of other girls with protruding rib cages to study when she wanted food. She saved tips on how to stay alive while starving and how to burn the most calories in 24 hours.

“There were months where I never ate more than 300 calories per day,” Crenshaw recalled. “As a child.”

Model healthy behavior

As an adult, Crenshaw recognized the unhealthy patterns of her childhood.

“It took years of recovering and undoing a narrative created by society,” she said. “I'm now extremely conscious of how I talk about food and activity in front of my kids and I don't ever comment on anyone else's appearance. They're listening and it matters.”

Ady Meschke, left, is pictured with her friend and co-author, Katie Crenshaw. The duo penned "Her Body Can," a children's book that aims to promote body positivity in kids.Courtesy of Body Can Books

Crenshaw’s story is not uncommon. Registered dietitian nutritionist Chelsea Edwards, who specializes in working with parents to foster positive relationships with food and body image in their children, said kids often feel the pressure to conform to the body ideals they see perpetuated all around them.

“Eating disorders have been seen in kids as young as 5, with 81% of 10-year-olds admitting to dieting, binge eating or fear of getting fat,” Edwards said. “Kids often feel the pressure to conform to the body ideals our society has set up, which can result in disordered eating and exercise patterns.”

Find diverse media images

Edwards told TODAY Parents that making a conscious effort to promote body positivity in children is important for a healthy body image long term.

“Finding media that incorporates body diversity can make kids feel more included and expose them to a variety of bodies, where people of all shapes, colors and abilities are portrayed in a positive light,” she said. “Parents can work to provide compliments based on efforts rather than appearance.”

All bodies are good bodies

Virgie Tovar, author of the award-winning “You Have the Right to Remain Fat,” also recognizes the importance of inclusivity in the digital world. She began the social campaign #LoseHateNotWeight, a body-positivity movement that has engaged more than 100,000 contributors and encourages diversity and self-love.

“When we teach children that all bodies are good bodies, we help to guard them against disordered eating and body dysmorphia throughout their lifetimes,” Tovar said. “The current cultural preoccupation with weight doesn't actually lead to better health practices or mental health. Food restriction and weight control methods tend to be correlated with anxiety, depression and higher rates of body dissatisfaction. Teaching kids body positivity interrupts this harmful cycle.”

Eat and move for fun

Tovar, who hosted a TEDx talk on the origins of her social campaign, encourages parents to promote body positivity in simple ways each day.

“Parents can model moving and eating for the sake of pleasure and fun,” Tovar shared. “It's important to decouple weight from health. Teaching kids that health isn't about being a low-weight helps set kids up for a life free from the danger and unpleasantness of weight-cycling. Further, it teaches them to see all people's bodies as equally worthy of respect, care and dignity.”

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