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Protecting Children from Diet Culture

By: Emily McCarthy

Recently, I watched a video on YouTube put out by the Dove Self-Esteem Project, an online movement whose goal is to highlight research demonstrating that social media harms the mental health of 3 in 5 children. This powerful video shows the real-life struggles of an adolescent girl after being exposed to a barrage of toxic videos and images about beauty, body image, and dieting on social media. Dove hopes that the videos created for their Self-Esteem Project will raise awareness of and support for the “Kids Online Safety Act,” a much-needed bill recently introduced to the United States Senate to establish guidelines meant to protect minors on social media platforms.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I did not have to contend with social media like today’s children and adolescents do. However, toxic diet culture was still very much present. As a child, I watched my mother pin her current “Diet of the Month” to our refrigerator with a magnet while filling our kitchen with fat-free, sugar-free, taste-free foods. She drank shakes instead of eating meals, attended meetings for weekly weigh-ins, spoke negatively about her thighs, and never ate dessert. While I believe she wanted to raise her children to have a healthy relationship with food and our bodies, she modeled something entirely different through her actions. Unsurprisingly, as an athlete in my late teens and 20s, I had to relearn how to eat in a way that healthfully supported my strength and fitness without the primary focus being the number on the scale.

In a world where societal standards, fueled by social media, often dictate beauty and body ideals, the need to shield children from the harmful effects of diet culture has become a pressing concern. From a young age, children are bombarded with messages about what they should look like and how they should eat, potentially leading to the development of negative body image, disordered eating habits, and even eating disorders. As parents, educators, and caregivers, we hold a significant responsibility. It is up to us to create an environment that nurtures a healthy relationship with food and body image, hoping to protect our children from the damaging influence of diet culture.

The reality is that social media and the false ideals it portrays are not going anywhere. To protect children from the harmful effects of diet culture, we must first cultivate a positive and supportive environment at home and in school, modeling a healthy relationship with food and our bodies. This starts with promoting body positivity and self-acceptance, emphasizing the value of diversity, individuality, and healthy bodies of any size. Encouraging children to have open and honest conversations about body image and self-esteem can help them develop a healthy sense of self and challenge social media’s unrealistic beauty standards.

In addition to fostering a positive body image, promoting intuitive eating and mindful eating practices is crucial. Teaching children to listen to their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues empowers them to make nourishing food choices based on their individual needs rather than arbitrary rules or restrictions. By encouraging a balanced and flexible approach to eating, we can help children develop a healthy relationship with food that will serve them throughout their lives. Avoiding language that reinforces diet culture, such as labeling food “good” or “bad,” can help prevent the development of restrictive eating habits and food guilt. Instead, parents can focus on promoting the enjoyment of a wide variety of foods and the importance of fueling our bodies with nourishing foods that make us feel good. By prioritizing our own well-being and demonstrating self-compassion for our bodies and others, we set an example for children to follow, reinforcing the importance of health over size or shape.

While I hope that the Kids Online Safety Act helps to make the Internet and social media a safer space for children, changing harmful diet culture starts in the home. Parents and caregivers are the first line of defense for children to form a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. By challenging toxic diet culture messages in the media, advocating for inclusive and diverse representations of beauty, and supporting policies that promote health at every size, we can hopefully help children to have a different experience than I did. Our goal should be a world where all children can grow up feeling healthy, confident, resilient, and unapologetically themselves.


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