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Jennifer,* a 40-something mother of two, paid a visit to the office of Margo Maine, a psychologist in West Hartford, Conn. In many respects, Jennifer was like most of the women who sought Maine’s counsel: She judged self-worth by the bathroom scale, and as the rigors of age and pregnancy added pounds to her body, her impulse to diet and exercise went into overdrive. She had even begun vomiting periodically to feel in control of her body and her life – which had felt increasingly out of control as she struggled to balance her job, her family and the care of ailing relatives.

What finally brought Jennifer to Maine’s door, however, was not her own body-image issues but her daughter’s. The 12-year-old had begun criticizing her own appearance and obsessing about dieting. Jennifer realized they both needed help.

Children often mirror their parents’ body-image issues, says Maine, PhD, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and coauthor of The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). “Kids pick up every message parents give,” she says. “I frequently see a generational pattern with weight and exercise preoccupation, and even with the use of cosmetic surgery to try to get a ‘better’ body.”

Just Like You

Kids soak up their surroundings like a sponge, and parental body attitudes are no exception. Kids mentally log our moans about being “bad” for eating cake and our sighs of disapproval when we check our rears in the mirror. They are pummeled by media messages suggesting that women aren’t appealing unless they’re long limbed and willowy and that men don’t measure up unless they’re tall and buff. It’s a wonder any kid can fathom the idea of any adult who is satisfied with his or her body.

Worse yet, kids watch adults – particularly women – divert precious life energy into trying to fix their unsatisfactory bodies. Social critic Eve Ensler, author and playwright of The Vagina Monologues (Villard, 2001), has spent years talking to women about their body attitudes. What she discovered was a pattern of rampant dissatisfaction and unrealistic obsession. “Just about every woman believed that if she could just get that part right, everything else would work out,” Ensler writes in The Good Body (Villard, 2004).

Reasons abound for us to set a better example for our kids, says Maine. And our kids aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. As we edit our body-bashing talk for pint-sized ears, we may find that we develop more respectful, body-loving values ourselves. Teach our kids to love their marvelous bodies and savor the nutrition that fuels them, and we just might retrain our own brains to revel in romping and eating.

Perhaps most important, with our kids’ interests at heart, we can begin actively questioning the unachievable cultural body standards that threaten to undermine us all. Do we really want kids thinking it’s normal to crave a Barbie body or to participate in plastic-surgery makeover shows such as The Swan?

If you’d prefer to see your kids learn to care for their bodies out of respect rather than reproach, consider these suggestions for moving your family toward body satisfaction:

1. Face the problem. Well over one-third of kids in grades three through six have already gone on diets. A 2002 survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health examined dieting behaviors of more than 80,000 Minnesota ninth and 12th graders. More than half the girls and nearly one-third of the boys practiced unsafe dieting tactics, including skipping meals, taking diet pills or laxatives, binge eating, vomiting, or starting smoking for weight control. Rates for bulimia and?binge eating are rapidly rising among boys and men. Guys are now just as likely as gals to suffer body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – a debilitating preoccupation with an imagined defect – according to Katharine Phillips, MD, founder of the BDD and body-image program at Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I., and author of The Broken Mirror (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Both sexes are undergoing cosmetic procedures at younger ages. Kids age 18 and under accounted for more than 240,000 of the nearly 12 million cosmetic procedures done in 2004, including breast implants, botox injections, laser hair removal, liposuction, and just about every other elective, surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic fix available to adults.

2. Watch your weighty words. “Most parents try to say the right things about body satisfaction, but informal comments can devastate,” Maine says. Notice the ones that slip – the tsk-tsk that someone has ‘let themselves go’; the gush of compliments when someone slims down; the incessant discussion about “good” and “bad” foods – and consider the affect those might have on kids.

Monitor the unspoken messages, too. When we keep wearing clothes that are too small and uncomfortable, we send kids a strong message – and make ourselves feel worse. “The best way to ‘feel fat’ is to wear something too tight,” says Maine. Dad’s sigh of relief as he undoes his belt buckle and Mom’s reflexive sucking in of her stomach as she checks the mirror tell kids it’s normal to sacrifice comfort for looks.

Not all comments regarding appearance are taboo. But do focus on nonbody aspects. If your daughter looks lovely in her prom dress, say something like “I can see you dancing till dawn in that,” rather than “That color is very slimming.”

3. Get to know your body history. Lessons learned as kids – “clean your plate” or “Daddy likes me better when I’m not fat” – don’t dissolve just because we grow up. Ensler’s struggle with physical self-loathing had its roots in a history marked by an abusive father, a mother disapproving of Ensler’s looks and an ever-intensifying consumer culture that urged women to buy body perfection. Chances are, we’re living out some of our childhood lessons – and teaching them to our kids.

Take a trip down memory lane. Recall yourself as a teenager and then as a child, Maine suggests. Jot down impressions about your family’s attitudes toward bodies and food. What were the unspoken rules about eating? Did you feel criticized for your body size and looks?

Then think about your life now. Have you passed on these lessons to your children? Often, the stresses of adult life make us feel more anxious about our bodies, which are changing because of aging and other natural processes.

If you’re committed to becoming your strongest, healthiest, most vital self, that’s terrific. But embarking on the impossible mission of regaining your 20-year-old physique is likely only to produce anxiety and frustration that your kids will observe. Look for ways to feel more satisfied in the body you have now, even as you strive to improve your fitness.

4. Teach Good Body 101. We all want our kids to have healthy bodies, and there’s plenty we can do to facilitate that: providing inviting, nutritious foods; giving them time for unstructured active play; and limiting sedentary hours spent staring at TV, computer and video-game screens. Let kids know that diets that fail to incorporate permanent healthy-eating changes don’t work, and why. Maine suggests a simple explanation of how food deprivation tells the body it’s in starvation mode, causing it to burn fuel more slowly, thus making weight loss even harder and rebound weight-gain worse. And observe when kids turn to food to address stress or boredom.

5. Get more media literate. A 25-study meta-analysis published in 2002 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders confirmed that we’re more likely to feel bad about not having a “good” body after viewing “mass-media images of the slender ideal,” for example, fashion magazines. “As an adult, when I see pictures of anorexic-looking women I’m supposed to look like, I can counter that with feelings of satisfaction with other areas of my life,” Maine says. “Kids don’t have that track record to balance their feelings of inadequacy. It’s not enough to tell kids, ‘Oh, don’t pay any attention to those pictures.’ They need us to help them deal with media expectations.”

Maine suggests looking at fashion magazines with youngsters and pointing out how models are often “perfected” with computer-aided technology that trims thighs, whittles waists and erases even tiny imperfections.

6. Stick with the body-happy message. It’s no small challenge in our looks-crazy culture to feel truly satisfied with your body, let alone live so that our kids can also internalize that satisfaction. Backsliding and mistakes are inevitable. But any message worth living is worth repeating. “Think of how often we tell kids ‘don’t do drugs or drive drunk,'” Maine says. Reminding ourselves to model healthy body-image attitudes and to make those values explicit to our children should have the same high priority, she says.

Imagine a future that doesn’t involve full-length-mirror bash sessions. Imagine kids who embrace their active bodies for what they can do – not how closely they resemble an impossible standard.

Maine’s patient Jennifer took these steps and resolved the weight issues that had put her in medical danger, and her daughter in harm’s way. She now volunteers with an eating-disorders group to educate other women and girls, and her healthier role-modeling has resulted in a much more body-satisfied daughter. “Changing just a little bit for your kids,” Maine says, “can make a real difference for the whole family.”

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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