Don’t Help Children Lose Weight; Help them Gain Body Positivity, Says Psychology Researcher

By Tom McLaughlin

September is in full swing and, for many health advocates, that means it’s time to observe National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

Pictured (left to right) is Charlotte Markey; her daughter, Grace; and former student Nana Amponsah, a 2019 Rutgers–Camden graduate with a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, in the Camden County Library System’s Nilsa I. Cruz-Perez Downtown Branch on the Rutgers–Camden campus. Amponsah assisted Markey with research on her book.

But hold the phone, says Rutgers University–Camden psychologist, researcher, and author Charlotte Markey.

The focus, she explains, shouldn’t be on obesity as a need to lose weight, but rather on encouraging proper health management – both mentally and physically.

“I don’t endorse the term ‘obesity’; the concern is that many people’s natural body sizes have been conceptualized as a medical problem in need of treating or fixing,” says the professor of psychology. “Rather, we can encourage children to participate in activities that support their mental and physical health. This has nothing to do with their body sizes.”

Taking proper physical and psychological care of oneself is a point that Markey shares with an especially vulnerable population in her enlightening new book, The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless (Cambridge University Press).

“The focus of the book is to teach girls that they are so much more than how they look,” says the Swarthmore, Pa. resident. “Developing a positive body image is possible and important for girls’ general health and well-being, and to ensure that they have bright futures.”

Written primarily for girls age 9 to 15, The Body Image Book for Girls candidly addresses a variety of relevant topics, such as puberty, mental health, self-care, healthy eating habits, physical activity, social media, friendships, sexual harassment, and more.

Throughout the book, the Rutgers–Camden researcher answers what it takes to raise body-positive girls who aren’t plagued by self-doubt, so that they can grow up feeling confident about their bodies and themselves.

“It’s about helping them to gain self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-protection, as well as an understanding of the science regarding nutrition and mental health in general,” says Markey, who was inspired to create an accessible resource for girls, including her own daughter and her friends. “This book is written for girls, but ideally they will read this book with a parent, and parents will consider it a resource as well.”

Timing, she adds, is everything.

Markey posits that, once body dissatisfaction takes hold, it is hard to shake. Body dissatisfaction starts in early childhood, she says, and increases significantly during the tween and teen years.

“Up to 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies,” says Markey, who also authored the books Smart People Don’t Diet and Body Positive. “This body dissatisfaction affects everything, including mental health, especially in terms of disordered eating, social interactions, and even goals in life. Ideally, preventing body dissatisfaction is the answer.”

In a recent Psychology Today blog post, Markey offers a few lessons from her book to help adults encourage girls’ body positivity:

  • Talk with your girls.
  • Help girls question beauty ideals.
  • Support girls’ development of a healthy relationship with food.
  • Remind girls to lift each other up.
  • Set a good example.

Summing up The Body Image Book for Girls, Markey cites a quote from Lexie and Lindsay Kite, co-founders of Beauty Redefined, which starts the book: “Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.”

As far as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month goes, Markey notes that there are several practical points that parents can follow throughout September to encourage mental and physical health:

  • Exercise. It’s beneficial for everyone, whether that means walking your dog or playing competitively on a soccer team.
  • Try to eat fruits and vegetables every day; it’s a great goal for everyone.
  • Get enough sleep; for teens and tweens, at least eight hours a night is really important.

“Just as importantly, we should frame these behaviors in terms of taking care of ourselves,” says Markey, “not in terms of needing to fix or change ourselves.”

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