Role modelling positive body image to your kids can be tricky at the best of times, but doing it in your swimwear? Even harder. As the weather is warmer, we hear Mums around Australia, and particularly those lucky enough to live by the beach, start to wonder about how to get through the summer season with their own, and their kids’ body image intact. At Body Confident Mums, we are on a mission to change the way that mums value their own bodies, and help them to role model this to their kids. We are researchers, who have spent the last few years deep diving into what the evidence says about body image in mothers. Here is a snapshot of what we have found.
Body Image in Mums
Research suggests that pregnancy can be a time where women experience a brief reprieve from the pressure to be thin, and are able to focus on eating to nourish themselves and their baby. Once the baby is out though, this societal pressure returns with vengeance, and women begin to report feeling pressure to ‘return to their pre baby figure’ as early as 4-6 weeks post-birth. However, the extent of the physiological and psychological change at this time means that ‘returning’ looks different, and has a different timeline for every woman, and isn’t really possible for most women, especially those in their 30’s. Studies in Australia and around the world show that feelings of body dissatisfaction tend to peak between six to nine months postpartum- when women expected to have ‘lost the baby weight’ but haven’t yet.
There is also now a lot of evidence that shows a strong connection between body dissatisfaction and postpartum depression. Lower levels of body satisfaction in pregnancy and postpartum are related to increased levels of postpartum depression, to the point where two research groups have recommended that screening for body dissatisfaction should be embedded in pregnancy alongside screening for postpartum depression.
Many people assume that they need to be critical of their weight and shape, or what their body looks like in order to motivate themselves into engaging in the sorts of behaviours that would help to change it. However, the science is showing that this just isn’t the way that it works. Women who appreciate their bodies more are more likely to engage in more physical activity, eat more fruit and vegetables, and even do things like apply sunscreen and engage in cancer screening practices. But if you are so used to treating your body this way, how can you change?
Working on your own body image
There are two main approaches that research suggests are effective for improving body image for adult women. The first is to take time to appreciate your body’s functionality instead of your appearance. Take a moment to consider all of the things that your body does for you in terms of experiencing life through your senses, your internal processes like digesting food and regulating temperature, your ability to move, be creative, interact with others. The second is to practice self-compassion. Our critical voices have become so familiar to us, we have often not heard from our inner compassionate voice for a long time. Self-compassion is known to improve feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and body image, and the more you practice this approach, the more it will become natural to you, and you will start to hear more from your compassionate internal voice and less from the critical one. For more resources, connect with the Body Confident Mums socials and website.
The other thing to be mindful of is making small incremental changes to your physical and social environment to change what you are exposed to. Consider your social media feed and unfollow, unsubscribe and mute anyone that makes you feel bad about yourself. Try to increase the number of accounts that you follow that post images of a diverse range of sizes and shapes of bodies, and follow body positive content that you connect with. Then move to real life. Are there any friends, places, people that make you feel bad about your body and yourself? Mute, block and unfollow them too! Another easy thing to do is to get a group of friends together, or just yourself, and watch the film Embrace. It was made for Mums, and our research found that it has been helpful in improving body image for most of the people that see it. It’s on Stan at the moment, so you can stream it if you have access. The science shows that building your body image will result in improved mental and physical health, and help you to engage in physical activity and healthy eating, so it’s worth giving it a go.
We know that Mums are busy, and that this can feel like just another thing on the to-do list, but the other big advantage of building your own body image is that this will make you better able to role model a positive body image to your kids. Our research shows that you can try to fake it until you make it, but it’s much more effective if you really feel it. This is particularly important if your kids are aged 0-10 years, as you are likely to be the strongest influence that they have on their body image right now. It might be tricky to begin with, especially during summer when you are wearing your swimsuit and might not feel totally comfortable doing so, but it’s also a great opportunity to buy a new cozzie that you feel great in, and role model all of the wonderful things that your body can do in it! If you are still struggling with the whole swimsuit thing, check out our beach affirmations on our Body Confident Mums socials as a part of our #youalreadyhaveasummerbody campaign.
How to improve body image in our children
The whole idea here is to reduce the extent to which kids believe that their appearance is important, and to encourage a celebration of diversity of bodies, and appreciation of their own body functionality. Here are some tips for encouraging positive body image in our children:
- Be a positive role model – Use positive language surrounding body image for yourself and others. Model positive behaviour surrounding body image, body acceptance, exercise and eating. Try to talk out loud about all of the things that you appreciate about what your body can do (in particular), and if it comes naturally, what it looks like.
- Increase self-compassion – (this is easier if you have done the work yourself first) – try to bring in a self-compassionate approach to everyday events: “Oh no, you’ve spilled the milk, that’s ok, you’re still learning and just doing your best. What did you learn from this that we can try next time?”
- Discourage body talk – Try to avoid conversations about other people’s bodies, teasing, and bullying around appearance. Talk about health and personal strengths instead of weight and appearance.
- Counteract negative messages – Minimise access to media that promotes the beauty ‘ideals’. Try to have kids watch less body-focussed shows as well as their favourites to mix things up a bit.
- Value difference in appearance – Teach your child that there is no ideal body type, every shape and size has its own form of beauty, strengths, and value. Point out all of the different shapes and sizes of people, dogs, and flowers in storybooks, and in real life and celebrate the great things that this diversity brings.
Dr Zali Yager, is an Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, and the CEO of the Body Confident Collective, the health promotion charity that powers Body Confident Mums. Zali has three kids (7, 5, and 5) and has a passion for using research translation to make large shifts in maternal care, media and marketing in order to empower and encourage positive health behaviours using a holistic compassionate framework to create impact.