A friend recently said that brain meds don’t change your personality, and I had a knee-jerk response of “Yes they do!” but I was surprised at my own conviction and had to think on it awhile. It’s a completely philosophical, religious, or spiritual question. Who am I? What makes me me? When am I most me? When am I not me? Can I be something other than myself?
What can parents do to help kids have a positive body image? How can we help our kids not judge people by their size?
Note: Since 85% of active dieters in the US are women, I am going to talk about girls for this post. However, boys and men are also subject to harmful messages about their bodies. This infographic includes some tips about boys. Email me if you need extra resources for helping the boys in your life!
According to a report from Common Sense Media, children as young as 5 years old express dissatisfaction with their bodies.
It’s no surprise.
In the US, the diet industry is a 60 BILLION dollar problem. Around 100 million people are actively trying to lose weight at any given time.
Children are subject to the same media messages and cultural pressures that adults are.
Children are just beginning to solidify their identity, their self-esteem, and their image of themselves. They are incredibly susceptible to messages about their bodies.
Additional Reading: 21 Things to Stop Saying Unless You Hate Fat People
Building body positivity for girls is a far-reaching endeavor.
- Body image is closely linked with self-esteem. Once low self-esteem is established, it affects all aspects of a person’s thinking.
- When girls have low self-esteem they are more likely to have negative habits like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, disordered eating (1), early sexual activity, and suicidal thoughts. (2)
- When girls feel bad about their looks, they try to avoid their normal activities like attending school. (1)
- Girls who are unhappy with their bodies may develop disordered eating habits like dieting, fasting, binging and purging.
- More than 1/3 of people who diet “normally” will begin pathological dieting, and 1/4 of those will suffer from an eating disorder. (2)
Fortunately, supporting body positivity for girls is something we can all do! No matter who you are, you can do these three things:
- Stop commenting on the appearance of girls. Period. When you are talking to a girl, don’t comment on her hair, clothes, shoes, accessories, skin, height, expression, or ANYTHING to do with her appearance. Girls get this kind of commentary constantly and it communicates that the way they look is what’s important about them. Change the message. Talk about ANYTHING ELSE.
- Stop talking down about your body and the bodies of others. Every time we participate in body-hate, we contribute to the culture that makes body positivity for girls an uphill battle.
- Consume media that displays a variety of body types in a positive light. Books, magazines, TV shows, movies, and websites get their support from our dollars and our eyeballs. Spend your attention in a way that promotes the kind of world you want to see.
Additional steps for parents to support body positivity for girls:
- Think about what you say about bodies. Moms, watch how you talk about your own body. Dads, watch how you talk about the appearance of other women. Learn some body positive mantras and get them into your regular language. Try “all bodies are good bodies” or some of these other suggestions.
- Think about what you say about food. Make a family rule that everyone, everywhere, at all times, is allowed to Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want.
- Think about what you say about exercise. It’s okay to encourage physical activity. But consider whether you make it sound like a moral imperative, boring, or something you do out of fear. Instead, do what you love! Move your bodies in fun ways!
- Get involved in the media your child consumes. You may not be able to control everything they see, but you can talk about the messages they encounter.
- Encourage helpful sports. Sports can be a positive influence. Don’t encourage sports that rely on unrealistic bodies, such as ice skating, gymnastics, or dance. Pay attention to the behavior and messages sent by coaches. But with a fun sport focused on team-building and strong bodies, participation can help girls feel good about their bodies.
- Cultivate good influences. Surround yourself with other people who are committed to body positivity. Fill your home with movies, books, artwork, music that promote body positivity and good role models.
- Listen to your daughter. When your daughter talks about her body, listen deeply to what she has to say. Don’t dismiss her fears. Instead, empathize. This is a battle you’re in together, along with every other woman in our culture. Listen, too, when she talks about the appearance of others. Don’t scold her or be dismissive if she’s judgmental of others. Look behind the words for the fears and concerns lurking there so you can face those head on.
- Be accepting. Take special care with other features that make your child different. If your child is a different race from her friends, has a disability, is gay or queer, and so on, she faces extra obstacles in maintaining a positive self-image. These other characteristics interact and interplay with the appearance-based messages your child gets. Accept your child for exactly who she is – every part of her.
Do you have any personal stories that might be helpful to others?
- As a child, what did adults do or not do that affected your body image (positively or negatively)?
- As a parent, what have you seen help or hurt your child?
- As a member of this culture, what do you wish we all did differently to spread body positivity?
Share your ideas in the comments!
(1) https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-teens-and-self-esteem, (2) https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-body-image
Additional Reading: Here’s a tiny selection of some of the great books about living a great life as a fat person. (These are affiliate links.)
I’m working on a post for next week about body positivity for girls, and I ran across a report from Common Sense Media called Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image. I’m not familiar with this organization, and I don’t know their biases. However, many of their findings ring true to me.
- Many kids and teens in the US are unhappy with their bodies. Body image is developed early, with children as young as 5 expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies.
- Body image is affected by many factors including family, peers, media, and our larger culture.
- Mainstream media promotes images of unrealistic, sexualized bodies of girls and women. Being exposed to this media puts girls at risk for developing a negative self image.
Common Sense Media highlighted their report in this infographic (PDF version here):
I can’t track down the origin of this phrase, but hot damn does it accurately describe a particular evil of our consumer culture!!
Not hating my body is pretty awesome.
For one thing, I’m bad for the economy. (Thank goodness!) I’m specifically a terrible female consumer!
I don’t buy razors, face creams, lotions, makeup, shampoo, antiperspirant, or hair spray. I don’t shave, pluck, straighten, curl, or shape anything. I don’t smooth, conceal, even out, condition, exfoliate, or blend anything.
I buy hardly any menstrual products because I use a reusable cup.
I don’t buy jewelry, dress shoes (or more than one pair of shoes at a time), or dress clothes.
I don’t buy a single weight loss product.
And it’s definitely crap. My own self-esteem stolen by night and sold back to me advertisement by advertisement. Time, energy, and money, stolen right out from under us.
Once they steal it, you can never get your self-esteem back, even if you pay top dollar for it. The beauty industry and the kyriarchy and civilization whisper to you “your hairy legs are ugly and they make you unloveable”. They steal your confidence and your sense of ownership over yourself. But shaving your legs doesn’t give that back to you. Shaving your legs doesn’t make you confident. It doesn’t prove that you’re the boss of you. You can never buy yourself back to a state where no one ever whispered away your self-esteem in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some better person because I don’t buy all those products. Frankly, it was as much laziness as it was political ideology that got me started chucking that part of our culture in the trash bin.
And I don’t get my confidence back, either. I still get all the messages, and I’m not even trying to succeed at the game. So I’m aware of being a certain kind of failure in our culture, and I can never, ever become unaware of these ways in which I’m failing.
I am at least not spending that money!
Glancing around for some quick stats, I came up with women spending an average of $300 a year on makeup alone, and as much as $2000 a year for all general health-and-beauty stuff related to being female and performing femininity.
The bottom line is that we spend A LOT.
We spend the cash.
We spend the time it takes to do all this shaving, slathering, and pruning.
We spend the mental energy monitoring how well we’re living up to expectations.
I started rejecting mainstream culture around age 19. I’m now 39, and I estimate that I spend about $150 a year on appearance maintenance. That means I’ve “saved” as much as $37,000. Wowowow! I win!
How many people in the US are fat? Since I talk about how fat people are oppressed, you might think I’m talking about a numerical minority.
It turns out that 35% of Americas are classified as obese. 34% are classified as overweight. Take your weight in pounds, divide by your height in inches squared, then multiply by 703. If the resulting number is greater than 24, you are overweight or obese. You are one of the 67%.
67% is a lot of people. It’s a majority. It’s most.
I mean, yes, you hear about the obeeesity epidemic, and epidemic ususally means OMG too many people. But on the other hand fat people are talked about like we’re some kind of freakish anomaly. 67% is not an anomaly. It’s just the way things are.
When I think about disability and the ways that social and institutional systems shape our perception of disability, I always come back to glasses. 75% of the US population uses corrective lenses of some kind.
But we don’t think of needing glasses as a very big deal.
Why is that?
Needing glasses is seen as pretty normal. Everyone gets tested now and then, there are optometrists and eyeglass stores everywhere you look. Even gas stations sell reading glasses sometimes. It’s perfectly commonplace and perfectly simple to manage this disability.
I am not trying to say that being fat is a disability – it’s not, although it frequently intersects with disability. But being fat is certainly unaccommodated.
What if every single room with chairs had sturdy, wide, and/or armless options? What if seatbelt extenders were sold at Walmart? What if the most common clothing size was US 16 (the average women’s size) and the availability averages spread out from there? What if for every store that only sold straight sizes there was a store that only sold plus sizes?
Let’s keep coming back to that number.
What if 67% of retail products were made with fat people in mind?
Have you heard the idea that in America, middle class people believe themselves to be temporarily embarrassed millionaires? This idea is presented as an explanation for why middle class America isn’t more up in arms about economic equliaty.
The same idea holds for fat people, too. Many fat people believe that they are juuuuuust on the verge of being skinny people. Any minute now they are going to join the hallowed ranks. This belief holds even though science tells us that there’s no known way to turn a fat person into a skinny person. This belief holds even for fat people who are not trying to become not-fat.
When 67% of the population believes that they should not exist, and that the market certainly should not cater to them, it’s no surprise that the market doesn’t.
Now, what does all this have to do with fat zombies?
One of the things that affects our perception about ourselves as “normal” is the portrayal of people like us in the media. Or lack of portrayal.
Any time you see a crowd scene in a movie, a third of them should be portrayed as fat, and another third as at least fat-ish. This isn’t usually what we see, though. When you see a crowd scene, you see mostly skinny people. This contributes to our impression of fat people as an unusual anomaly.
The first time I had this thought I was watching a zombie movie. Zombie movies always show hordes of zombies closing in on the place where the heroes are ensconced. If these zombies are a month into the horror and are all literally wasting away from starvation, then sure, I expect them to be thin. But if it’s the crowd of zombies in the initial horrible rush of zombies taking over the world… well, 67% of them should be fat.
Where are all the fat zombies? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single one.
Obeeeeeesity epidemic people want to have it both ways. They want to be afraid of our growing numbers, while pretending that we’re a freak occurrence.
We’re actually neither.
The percent of our population diagnosed as overweight or obese is stable – that number isn’t going up and hasn’t been for over a decade.
And guess what? We’re not an errant phenomena. We’re just normal. We’re 67% of the population.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were treated like what we are? People. Most people.
Additional Reading: Here’s a tiny selection of some of the great books about living a great life as a fat person. (These are affiliate links. If you buy, thanks for your support!)