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Talking to Your Student About Body Positivity

Kate Harveston


Body positivity has to do with how you feel about the skin in which you live.

When we have a positive body image, we're more likely to be happy with our selves and our lives, and to experience lower rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Conversely, having a negative body image can shatter a person's self-esteem and make them more reluctant to participate in productive activities. It can set them up for struggles with addictions and eating disorders.

A parent's responsibility for educating their children about body positivity doesn't end after high school graduation. The college years and the transition to adulthood carry new challenges and stressors with emotional and physical changes aplenty.

As the parent of a college student, you can do a lot to ensure they don't end up struggling with poor self-image. You can also help them reduce the risk of eating disorders. Keeping the lines of support and communication open can improve your student’s health for a lifetime.

Are they living at home with you during the COVID-19 pandemic? It's the perfect opportunity to share and model healthy behaviors. Here are a few suggestions.

1. Lead by Example

How are your own health habits and what lessons do they teach? If you want your student to lead a healthier life, you can start by setting a positive example.

That doesn’t mean you have to forego pizza in favor of kale smoothies forever. Get in the habit of practicing 80/20 eating and teach your student the technique. If you choose nutritious foods about 80% of the time, it’s okay to indulge in less nutritious snacks on occasion so that you don’t feel deprived.

2. Talk Positively About Yourself

Do you often sigh or groan about how you need to lose five (or 10 or 20) pounds? If so, what message are you sending to your student? If you hope to instill the truth that health comes in various shapes and sizes, be aware of your own self-image and try not to talk negatively about yourself.

That doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to improve your well-being if need be. You can inspire your student by toning your body or quitting smoking. Positively frame these, however. Say, “I feel better since I started eating more vegetables" or "Taking a walk during my lunch break has given me so much more energy."

3. Consider Your Choice of Words When Talking About Others

How often do you think about the impact of your language? When our children are little, we tend to be super careful about the words we use around them. As they get older, we relax a bit.

But words can pack a punch. Our older children are still listening, and our language and tone can shape their attitudes about the world and about themselves.

For example, if they hear a parent make a joke or less-than-sensitive observation about someone's weight, a student (especially one with a fragile body image) may internalize this negativity and develop a phobia of excess fat that spirals into an eating disorder. (Obesity, by the way, is a condition that affects nearly 40% of Americans.)

We don’t ever know another person’s circumstances. Even a seemingly harmless comment (“she looks disheveled”) can sound insulting if the person in question recently clocked out from a hard night’s work. Maybe they are an emergency plumber coming off a messy job. We can't help what we think, but we can think twice about making observations out loud, and choose silence if it seems like we might be passing a less than kind judgment.

4. Counteract Media Messages

Like it or not, the media still sends messages about what people should and should not look like. Counteract harmful ideals by talking with your student about the different messages in advertising and entertainment. Make it a conversation — ask for their take on the ad you're both watching, and coach them gently toward a healthier mindset if needed.

You can also choose to patronize companies that make inclusivity a hallmark of their advertising and marketing efforts. Seek out brands that employ models of all shapes and sizes. The disabled community continues to face significant stigma, for instance, and this issue can impact others.

5. Serve Healthy Meals at Home

Your student's college vacations (or this longer pandemic spell, if they've moved back in with you) are a chance to indulge their appreciation of home cooking plus experiment with healthy ingredients and new flavors.

Ask about any dietary restrictions they might have adopted at school. For example, they may have decided to embrace vegetarianism or veganism, or to give the keto or paleo diet a try. Respect their choices, and see it as an excuse to experiment together in the kitchen. You may discover your goulash tastes every bit as delicious with beets as with beef.

6. Help with Nutrition from Afar

Many college students want to eat healthfully, but tight budgets make it challenging to afford quality ingredients. If your student stayed in off-campus housing during the coronavirus crisis, help by sending them a care package of healthy food staples.

Review advice with them about handling contactless delivery, or consider enrolling them in a meal delivery service so they can prep easy and nourishing dinners in their apartment.

Pass along these tips for how to cook healthy and simple meals as a student >

7. Work Out Together

Stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders don't mean we have to become couch potatoes. In fact, many people have taken up new and creative forms of exercise during the pandemic.

If your student is spending too much time glued to their screens, get them moving by encouraging them to work out with you. You'll both end up feeling healthier.

Fitness at home is as easy as pulling up a yoga video on YouTube. There are oodles of quality fitness channels that let you get your sweat on in private. You can also take a brisk walk together — an opportunity to chat without distractions. Whatever you choose, encourage your student to get the 30 minutes of exercise per day that is recommended by health experts.

8. Encourage Healthy Behaviors

Communicating with young adult children is always a delicate balancing act. They've been living on their own at college and may rightfully think, “I'm an adult now and I can make my own choices.”

Remaining mindful of this changing dynamic will help you avoid unnecessary conflict. And this spring, it's also important to be sensitive to the challenges students have been through — many of them are dealing with unprecedented anxiety, which may make them sensitive to what they perceive of as criticism.

Just as when they were little, you can praise the good stuff that you'd like to see more of and carefully circle around the not-so-good stuff. Do they enjoy nothing more than reading a novel while soaking in the tub? If so, encourage this behavior. Both the book and the bubbles represent healthy self-care. These self-soothing mechanisms are critical coping skills for when life gets chaotic — like now.

You might also notice that your student picked up some less desirable habits, like drinking, while away at school. Practice restraint when you weigh in on these behaviors. For example, you might express gentle concern about the amount of screen time they enjoy. You don't want to judge, because then they may rebel or just tune you out, and you've lost an opportunity to support them as they forge a healthier, more balanced path.

Talk to Your Student About Body Positivity

Your job of nurturing your student's positive self and body image doesn’t end at high school graduation. By continuing to communicate, you can instill better habits for life.

Kate Harveston is a health and lifestyle journalist. Find more of her writing on her blog (So Well, So Woman), in College Parent Magazine by CollegiateParent, and on sites like YourTango, Greatist and Care2.
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