When you think of Gen Z you probably think of self-assured youngsters having fun on Tik Tok and telling us other generations that skinny jeans and side-parts are out. Yet beneath that air of coolness is a harsh truth – that our children feel insecure about their appearances. This year the Dove Self-Esteem Project released stats revealing that 87% of Irish girls aged between 10 -17 have low body self-esteem. We are a nation full of incredible people, yet the way we feel about our bodies is holding us ALL back.

I’ll never forget how it used to feel to not like my body, it started when I was 10 and those feelings haunted me into my early 20s. The feelings of shame and discomfort in my own skin. You’re probably nodding along and realising that you were just a child when you started to look at your body with a critical eye. None of us were born disliking our bodies, we were conditioned to, and the worst part is that we’re accidently teaching our children to do the same.

Body beliefs start in the home

Body image and our beliefs around food and appearances all start in the home. As children we inherit the body image hang-ups of our parents and close family members. When parents diet, weigh food, and say that certain foods are “bad”, kids are there, soaking up it all up. The same goes for when a parent bashes their own body with words like I’m so fat/I’m disgusting/I look awful. This is showing and telling kids that some bodies are good and nothing in this world could be worse than having a bad body. We are communicating to kids that happiness and confidence are only achieved once we look “good”. 

One of the causes of us losing our body confidence as children is when we realise that people we love judge us based on our appearances. In many homes it’s normal to hear parents talk about other people like how Mary down the road has gaining weight or commenting on the “weird” looking lad on the telly. This is when kids learn that it’s acceptable to judge and ridicule people based on their appearances. It only hits them later when a loved one comments on their body that they too are being judged. We develop hang-ups when people we trust make unkind comments about our bodies. Like if your aunty told you that you needed to hold back on the sweets because you were getting fat or if your granda told you that you’d big wonky ears.

In my area of work, I get messages every day asking me “How can I help my children with their body image?”. The answer is the always same, regardless of your child’s gender or age – become a body confident role-model. Parents cannot teach the next generation how to like their bodies if they have absolutely no idea how to do it for themselves. This means letting go of dieting, body bashing, and avoiding being in photos. It means saying goodbye to negative beliefs around bodies and being open to possibly being wrong about things like thinking you can’t wear stripes or that it’s healthy to cut out carbs. You may already be lifting a finger and ready to protest my words but just note, so far, we’ve been doing a brilliant job at being role-models on how to be at war with our own bodies. If we could achieve that, then we can achieve being body confident role-models. In fact, I know it’s possible because that’s exactly what I help parents to do!

How to be a body positive parent

With my clients I always start with a few simple actions to get the ball rolling. This includes removing anything from your home that makes you feel bum such as old clothes that don’t fit, weight loss books, or your scales. Donate, recycle, or at the least, put it all away into storage and out of sight. Same goes for your social media, unfollow anything that makes you feel less worthy or causes you to compare yourself. If something makes you feel like you aren’t good enough then it isn’t serving you or your family because those nasty feelings have a ripple effect. One minute you’re grand, then after a scroll on Instagram you’re suddenly thinking you need to lose weight and you’re googling lip fillers. You’ll convince yourself that it’s about health, but you know in your heart and soul that it has nothing to do with health and everything with wanting to be beautiful because you’ve been told your whole life by the world around you that you’ll be so much happier once you’re beautiful enough.

You and the mirror

Let’s be honest about the person in the mirror. What do you do and think when you see your reflection? I tell all my clients to start treating their reflection the same way they would treat a friend because your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you’ll ever have. Smile at yourself and say something positive like “you’re looking well”. You may feel silly doing it at first but how is frowning and telling yourself that you look like a root vegetable any less silly? Your kids see when you redirect your eyes, frown, and sigh at the sight of yourself. Imagine how they would feel if they saw you smiling in the mirror, giving yourself the odd wink, and saying aloud “I look and feel fab today”. Your kids are likely to grow up to look like you, so seeing you accept your body is directly showing them how to do the same.

No matter what you do, your kids will come across the message from outside the home that they should meet certain beauty standards. You can show them how to like their bodies and build up their self-esteem so they pay little to no attention to these messages. Show them how wonderful people are and that our appreciation for others is not based on looks. To do this use non-appearance-based compliments such as “look at how strong your arms are, they really help you to climb” or “Granny is a wonderful listener”. You can also teach them how to have gratitude towards their bodies by telling them your favourite things about your body and asking them about theirs. For example “I love my tummy, its soft, cuddly, and it helped to create you. What do you like about your tummy?”.

It’s possible to start helping your kids with their body image even if you currently feel bad in your own skin. You don’t wait until you’ve got this all figured out or until you’re the “perfect” example of body confidence. Perfection doesn’t exist. Imagine how your kids will feel to see you transform your relationship with yourself without having to physically change yourself. Your children will feel your confidence, they will be happy to have you in all the family photos, and with each positive change you make, you’ll be helping them with their body image too. Remember, your kids learn their body beliefs and how to feel about their bodies from you. You can be the parent who raises their kids to be body confident!

 This article was originally published on Image.ie

Cliona Byrne is a Body Positive Parenting Coach, she works with parents to help them accept their own bodies so they can raise body confident badasses. Find out more from Cliona and her programme Body Positive Parenting on her website: clionabyrne.com, and by following her Instagram account: @cliona_the_coach.