Negative body image is an issue girls deal with early and often. According to the Eating Disorder Foundation, a staggering 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. As we learned in a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, reality royalty Kourtney Kardashian refuses to let her 4-year-old daughter, Penelope Disick, be part of that statistic. In fact, she won’t even allow the F word — fat — to be used in front of her little girl. Especially not by mother figures and other role models.
In an interview with Cosmopolitan, Kourtney explained why she reprimanded her mom, Kris Jenner, on television for asking, “Do I look fat?” in front of Penelope. “There are so many conversations that we have without thinking the kids are listening. I just don’t want to start getting anybody self-conscious,” she told the publication. “They say if a mother is confident about her body that the daughters are way more likely to not have eating disorders. I’m fine about my body, but I’ll notice little things. If I’m like, ‘Ugh, I hate this outfit! I’m changing!’ My daughter will try on tons of outfits before she’s happy.”
Kourtney’s motherly instincts are actually backed by science. According to a study conducted by Common Sense Media, 5- to 8-year-olds who think their moms are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies. “We have the most (and earliest) exposure to our mothers, and they serve as models before we even realize we’re modeling them,” confirms psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld, according to Mic. “It’s hard not to admire and emulate our mothers, even if some of their behavior is harmful — or disordered.”
Hayley van Zwanenberg is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Group, Europe’s largest independent mental health provider and is also clinical director of Priory’s Wellbeing Centers in the U.K. She told Yahoo Beauty: “Young children should not be worrying about their weight or appearance. It is important to remember that children learn from their parents. Parents are their role models. It is really important that parents try as hard as they can not to comment on their own physical insecurities in front of their children. If weight is a focus of discussion in front of children at a young age, they can become very absorbed in this and form the wrong core beliefs about a healthy body and their own body, which can lead to issues later in life.”
Those issues, according to the Eating Disorder Foundation, include not just eating disorders themselves but other mental health issues. Alcohol and other substance abuse disorders are four times more common for people who grew up with body image issues, according to the association’s site. They’re also more susceptible to developing depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and mood disorders.
That’s not to say that maintaining a healthy weight is not important for children, of course. “It is fine to discuss being healthy with your children; healthy eating and exercise are important points to establish in young people, but without the focus on weight,” says van Zwanenberg. “If parents could establish in young people that being healthy and fit is important but values such as being kind and caring are far more important than appearance, they would really be helping their children develop beliefs that will stand them in good stead when meeting challenges and pressures from their peers later in life.”
Findings by Common Sense Media’s study concur. Their research shows that banning “fat talk” can “have a lot of power to shape [kids’] attitudes, values, and behavior.” The group also points out that it’s not just girls who are susceptible to body image issues. When it comes to boys, body negativity can go unnoticed, the site points out, so parents should pay close attention for disparaging body talk and dramatic weight loss or gain. They should also keep an eye out for harmful messages coming from coaches, peers, and online forums — particularly those related to sports and fitness.
And it all comes full circle, as boys can be an influence on girls too. “[The boys’] role in supporting healthy attitudes among girls is vital,” the study concludes.