How to Instill Self-Love and Body Positivity in Our Children

Samantha Paige is an artist, mother, inspirational speaker, thyroid cancer survivor, BRCA-1 previvor, and the founder of Last Cut Project, a photo documentary and movement about those big life decisions ("last cuts") we make that bring us closer to living a life that feels like our own. Samantha has chosen not to dwell on her past health—and life—challenges, but instead, credits them as her greatest teachers; those challenges have thus shaped both her worldview and role as a parent, and she aims to instill these lessons learned in her own daughter.

I battled most with my body when it looked the way everyone told me it should. When I gazed at my long hair, reconstructed breasts and made-up face in the mirror, I saw a stranger reflected back to me. I barely recognized the person I had become. In the throes of trauma and illness for much of my 20s, following a thyroid cancer diagnosis at age 21 and the painful aftermath, I lost myself, outsourcing my happiness and appearance to the confining definitions of others. I internalized the idea that I would “feel” better if I looked a certain way.

In the midst of trying to find myself again, I tested positive for the BRCA1 genetic mutation, opting for a preventive double mastectomy shortly after I became a new parent. In order to play the roles of wife, mother and “woman,” I elected for reconstruction, selecting (rather large) silicone implants. The surgeon shared that the implants made most women feel “normal,” and, at the time, I wanted to feel like most women.

Eight years after, I realized the woman I saw in the mirror was not me, and elected for an explant surgery. I had the implants removed, going flat and opting to embrace it. This act was part of a broader movement in my life to make a series of last cuts, or big life decisions, to represent my inner world through my external decisions. The explant surgery also came at a moment when I realized that my decisions and actions around my body were in large part showing my child how to interact with her own.

As parents and role models to our children—those who make up the next generation—it’s ultimately up to us to help shatter some of the bad habits and detrimental norms that have been created and upheld in the media and our families. One of the most powerful ways to deconstruct these tropes is to embody the kind of body positivity and self-love within ourselves that we hope our children will cultivate from a young age and into their adult lives.

Given my conversations with my young child, here are a few thoughts to consider on how to create a strong, supportive environment at home and to contribute to changing the broader narrative around beauty standards.

In order to teach our kids to love their bodies and selves, we first need to look within and establish habits that build our own confidence and self-appreciation. Start by asking yourself these questions on an ongoing basis:

1. Am I taking care of myself, as a person, a parent, and a role model? Self-care is instrumental in ensuring that we are practicing what we preach and, as parents, we often forget to take time for ourselves. Self-care allows for greater wellness and that feeds our ability to appreciate the incredible vessels we embody.

2. How am I acting as a role model? Am I personally recognizing and promoting that we’re all different and that there’s beauty in our imperfections? I like to remind myself, and my child, that we are all perfectly imperfect in our individuality. No two bodies look the same, and that is a beautiful thing.

One of the most powerful ways to fall in love with yourself is to replace negative and abusive chatter with positive praise. We often have no problem listing off the traits we dislike about ourselves but fall short on vocalizing the good. I try to replace a negative thought about my body or self with a positive one and encourage my child do the same.

Teach your children the power of positive thinking, especially when it comes to their own body. For example, if your child is constantly pointing out parts of themselves they are unhappy with, ask them to focus on one or two things they love about themselves in that moment instead. In time, they’ll begin to flip the conversation on their own.

This point also applies to how we talk about others and their bodies. Actively make an effort not to talk about other individuals and their bodies in a negative or overly effusive positive manner that might reinforce body stereotypes. If we criticize someone else or their body, it sends the message to our child—and our own selves—that it is acceptable to do the same.

A lot of my own personal healing over the years has happened through a deeper dedication to healthy nutrition and exercise. In order to regain my health after cancer and multiple surgeries, I turned to food as medicine. Our bodies can be our greatest teachers when we listen to their signals.

I know I feel better in body, mind, and spirit when I eat foods that support my immune system and wellness, and when I incorporate exercise into my day—something I often share with my child. Through our own choices, we can show that feeling good on the outside comes from feeling good on the inside. Encourage them to listen to their own body to develop habits that work for them, rather than adopting homogenized approaches to wellness. Explain that eating foods and moving in ways that make you feel healthy inside will ultimately result in radiance on the outside, as once again, the goal is to foster positivity and self-love in order to create self-sustaining habits of wellness and appreciation.

We have the power to make a lasting impact on our children’s perception of beauty and wellness with small steps in our daily lives. Re-visiting our awareness of the way we as parents and role models hold ourselves accountable in this space will result in a shift in the wider dialogue around body positivity, self-love, and perceptions of beauty.