Monday morning is the most chaotic and busy day in my household. Reeling off a lazy weekend, I'm usually rushing around gathering uniforms and lunches, asking my children (multiple times) to eat their breakfast and finding something clean to throw on for the school dropoff run.
"Ugh! Nothing fits!" I groaned from my bedroom.
"Mommy, what are you doing?" asks my 4-year-old.
"I'm just trying to get ready, go and finish your toast!" I snap back.
I stormed through the living room, searching for yoga pants. "Seriously, I feel so bloated today, I hate how these jeans look!"
My son looked up at me from the dining table and laughed to his brother, "Mommy's fat."
The horrid 'F' word had finally entered our house.
Without realizing, my body image complaints had begun to impact my children. Being a mother of boys, I never paid too much attention to how negative self-talk could affect their views on body confidence and self-esteem, to be honest. Although, as a female, I am all too aware of how images in the media and friendships can influence a young girl's view of how she looks.
But recently, I found myself wondering: As human beings, do boys not suffer the backlash of negative body images, too? I tried to think of the importance of male role models in my sons' lives but came to realize that as their mother—the one person who spends more time with them than anyone else—what am I doing to encourage positive self-esteem? How am I ensuring they grow up to be confident in their own skin?
I remember back when I worked in an early childhood setting, and one boy said, "Boys only become men once they have muscles!" When they're young, and often into superheroes and muscley TV characters, boys are already receiving passive information about masculinity through their admiration of these characters.
I know I'm guilty of bribing my boys to eat their dinner by saying "If you want to grow strong and have big muscles, you have to eat your meat!" There is no scientific evidence to support my threats, it's just something that has rolled off my tongue without much hesitation.
My 5-year-old refused a piece of chocolate the other day which was completely unheard of for him. His reasoning? "I don't want to be fat, Mom." That really hit me. I am all for healthy eating and encouraging children to down their veggies, but creating a stigma around enjoying a little treat because you might put on weight, is not a healthy mindset—especially at such a young age.
So, what can I do about it? Well, I've realized that it all starts in our home—with me.
1. I am being extra mindful of the words I choose
I've definitely had a moment or two where I'm talking to a girlfriend on the phone, and a complaint about my weight or how my boobs have succumbed to gravity slips out of my mouth...
And it recently all clicked—where are my children during these conversations? Well, they're typically within earshot. And a seemingly innocent chat in the car during school pick-up could be sending negative messages to my kids in the backseat that will impact them for life.
From the age of two, my children were imitating everyone around them—repeating everything. So every word I say matters. Now, instead of saying, "I feel so fat today" we talk about how, "People may be bigger or smaller than you, but that's okay because people are made in lots of shapes and sizes from each other. What's important is that you're eating healthy and taking care of your body."
2. I am drawing attention and focus on positive qualities
Boys may not be as forthcoming about struggles with their body and, in a pack, they seem to be inclined to exhibit physical strength in order to become the Alpha male. My two are so similar and different at the same time—I aim to teach them the importance of their unique qualities.
My older son is taller, has legs for days and is super fast, which at times makes my younger son feel like he is at a disadvantage because he isn't as tall or fast. I try to remind him about the things he is great at, focusing on the positive without comparison.
He is a fantastic artist with a keen attention to detail and so I try to guide him toward what he is good at or interested in and celebrate his talents. A healthy body image and sense of self is an important part of instilling confidence in all aspects of their lives.
3. I am teaching strong values
As I mentioned above, it all starts in the home. My children are learning specific behaviors and values directly from their parents and close family members. As their mother, I have been reflecting on how I nourish my family and myself. Most women I know have been on a diet at one point in their lives (including myself). But I've banned that word in my house now.
Instead, we focus on the health benefits of eating our carrots and broccoli, like how they will make us feel mentally focused and energized rather than me saying something like, "This will help me fit into those jeans!"
Muscles do not define a person. Neither does hair length or the clothes they choose to wear. Redefining the idea of masculinity into a wholesome picture of value-based growth and development is the key to helping my boys thrive. Supporting them in developing a healthy body image, confidence and self-esteem will help them become the actionable and positive male role models for the boys of tomorrow.