Picture, for a moment, what a healthy body looks like. Imagine the physical form of someone who takes good care of their health, exercises, and eats nutritious food. Now, what did you see? Was it a variety of bodies of different sizes and muscular definitions? Or was it the myth of the holy grail of fitness, thin and chiseled and “just right?” And, if it’s the latter, does good health truly result in just one body type for all of the eight billion people alive today?

Mental Health America hosted a webinar with speakers Lisa Radzak, executive director of WithAll, and Celia Framson, a clinical dietician at the eating disorders program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, to discuss how widely-held misconceptions about healthy weights and ideal body types are being transmitted to and harming children. “I invite you to step back just a minute and think about the messages that you all, each of us, screw up with, about food and about our bodies,” Radzak said. “I think it won’t be hard for you to identify many messages that you received that were less than helpful, or even harmful, to your own food relationship and body image. Many of us have carried the harm from that for a long time.”

Without recognizing the ways in which one’s own concepts of healthy bodies are unrealistic and harmful, it is impossible to avoid perpetuating that harm on the people around us. “How we see food is often so heavily tainted by the diet culture we all grew up in and live in still today, and how we see our own bodies is so flooded with what we, as children, and as adolescents, and as teens, absorbed from the messages that surrounded us about body ideal, either a thin ideal or a muscular ideal. These are the harmful messages that we took in,” Radzak said. Children, impressionable and eager to learn, are the most susceptible.

For people in a position to be a role model for children, it may already be on their minds to ensure that the children around them receive healthier messages about food and body types than they did. With the right information, it is possible to stand as a positive role model for healthy relationships with food even before fully addressing and resolving all of one’s own unhealthy beliefs. 

This is especially important to keep in mind for adults who may still be struggling to recognize that some of their oldest beliefs about health and bodies are not only false but harmful. “For some of us the concept that thinness, body ideal, is essential to well-being or health, thinness or body ideal over everything else, is so ingrained, we simply are not able to see past that,” Radzak said. “But if you’re open just enough to the possibility that health and well-being come first, they matter, and body size and shape will appropriately follow from behaviors motivated by health and well-being, then welcome. You are not alone, and together, we are giving kids a childhood that many of us never had.” 

At the very least, ensuring no further body image harm is perpetrated against children is of the utmost importance as eating disorders are the second-deadliest mental illness, second only to opioid overdose. While genetic predisposition to eating disorders and disordered eating cannot be avoided, the messages we receive from our environment and the way in which we process what we are exposed to are risk factors that can be improved. 

Adults have the power to eliminate or reduce those key risks for children, for example, by refusing to participate in and spread common harmful messages in our environment, such as the heavily distorted concept of body mass index (BMI). “Kids come in all shapes and sizes,” Framson said. “The BMI curves are not meant to pathologize bodies, which is absolutely what has happened. I’m not going to go into the weeds here on the history of BMI and the BMI curves, but suffice it to say, they are definitely entangled with racism and white supremacy and ideas of there being something that’s normal and valuable and good, and something that’s not. We really need to take those charts with a huge grain of salt.” 

Instilling an unhealthy mindset at a young age, such as by congratulating a child for losing weight or praising them for looking thin, snowballs with other environmental messages into a life-long struggle with body image and harmful relationships with food.

“If there is one thing, just one thing, that I could have every adult who loves a kid consider and remember, it is this: We send kids an incredibly powerful message about what matters with food and body,” Radzak said. “It is either health and well-being, or it is diet culture and body ideal. It can’t be both. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. It cannot be both. You cannot be promoting diet culture and body ideals and still be promoting health and well-being with children. It has to be health and well-being or diet culture and body ideal. If that’s all you take from today, and you do your best to choose health and well-being as what you role model and talk about with kids, you are doing your part to reduce the child’s risks of developing disordered eating or eating disorders.” 

In other words, by ensuring that conversations about food and bodies are only about health and well-being, and by avoiding talking about body types or diet in a way that praises some and condemns others, you have successfully done the bulk of the work in modeling healthy relationships with food and body image — for kids, and for everyone. 

To learn more from the speakers, watch the webinar here.