Too fat. Too tall. Too skinny. Too scrawny. Too chubby. At what point do we become 'just right'? At what point do we stop and hear the things we are telling our kids - yes, both boys and girls - and realize that rather than helping them to grow strong and true and to have unyield self esteems, we are instead creating wicked echos in their ears, that stomp out the truth?
Our words are the unintended weapon of choice here. How you wield them depends on you. How your child hears them is also a factor.
What is body image? One's body image is how a person views their physical self, and includes whether or not they might be attractive AND if others like their looks. For most people, but ESPECIALLY for young people and teens, self-esteem is very much dependent on body image. What, then, is self esteem? It is how much a person feels they are worth AND how much they feel other people value them. Self esteem greatly impacts mental and emotional health, as well as an individual's behaviors.
Unfortunately, tweens and teenagers are at an especially impressionable age, and are subject to a barrage of factors that impact their self-esteem: social media, celebrity images, peer influences, and the words and comments of adults of authority (e.g. parents, coaches). It is not just one incident (good or bad) that impacts a child's developing self-esteem, but rather many, and they compound one another exponentially. It is hard not to compare oneself to images we see regularly on the internet and other social media outlets; it is so very hard, even as adults with healthy body images. Imagine how it impacts our kids. We know we are never going to be a football quarterback like Tom Brady, physically model perfect like a Angelina Petrova, or strong and agile as Michael Phelps. We are, after all, only human, and pretty outstanding in our right... we know this as adults, after years of experience and practice knowing our own self-worth. Our kids? Imagine how these same images impact our kids.
Is media the bad guy? Completely unrealistic body images run rampant in the media, from humanly impossible physiques to odd body contouring, photo-shopped images abound, sadly tainting our kids' views of what a 'normal' body looks like. Or worse, what the 'ideal' body looks like. The average female fashion model wears a size two or four, for instance, while the average American woman wears a size 12 to 14. Clothing designers often say they only use very thin, emaciated models because 'clothes simply look better on them.' In addition, photos of models in print ads are often “touched up” in order to disguise minor flaws or make the model appear even skinnier than she really is. The bottom line is that the body image advertising portrays seldom looks like the people the ads are aimed at. We - adults - know these bodies/faces/physiques are not real, and yet we still want to be like them. That's the ideal, right? The image in the picture? If we eat less, if we exercise more, if we dress differently, maybe we can ... except that we can't. Those images only exist on the photoshop screen; photographers don't even need real humans to start as they can create these images, these 'ideal' people from bits and pieces of other photographs. So then, what IS real? I'll tell you what is real: the negative impact on the psyche of our children, on their mental, emotional and physical well-being, and the creation of these horribly distorted completely unreal body images.
The media isn't all bad, though. More and more, thankfully, we are hearing positive body image discourse from different media sources. Positive body messaging and positive self-esteem promoting messages are starting to circulate. Even models and actresses are rebelling against the unrealistic images the magazines and gossip-hounds are portraying. Thankfully, perhaps because more and more women are gaining more and more positions of influence, we are hearing positive body messaging instead of just thin thin thin. You know what kind of body looks the best? The healthy kind. Doesn't matter the shape, as long as the person wearing it is happy, healthy and confident.
The mixed and negative messages aren't just coming from the media. Peers can be body-shamers, too, as can (hopefully unconsciously, but maybe that makes it worse) teachers, parents, and other adults of influence. It's hard, isn't it, not to label your kids: the smart one, the sporty one, the strong one. Each child has their strengths and we see them all, but we also see those strengths that are most outstanding. Why wouldn't we note them? Well, because then, when you label, you box your child into that label, making them less able to see themselves as something other than that label. Or they rebel, becoming anything BUT that.
Children are, both thankfully and unfortunately, highly influenceable. They hear messages over and over, and then internalize them, making the voices they hear outside of their head become their own. Suddenly, their self-esteem is no longer even from their 'self' but from outside influences, whether or not they are accurate. Whose voice do they hear when they think about how they look? Whose eyes do they use when they see themselves in a mirror?
What can we do to help our kids hear their own strong, confident voices?
We can help them see the bigger picture. Sure, body image is important, but it isn't the defining view of a person. Focus on how amazing their bodies are, what they can do and accomplish instead of how they look.
We can help them by listening to their body and self-esteem concerns. Their worries and fears are real. Listen and validate what they are feeling. Help them to find ways they can feel more confident in themselves. I'm not saying to lavish them with extravagant praise (that has ironically actually has been shown to lower self-esteem); instead help them to develop realistic views of themselves, their abilities, and help them to have the confidence to face challenges, challengers, and nay-sayers.
We can watch what we say. Besides labeling, potentially derogatory comments about other people, yourself, or your spouse might be overheard and misconstrued.
We can talk to our kids about what they see in the media. Talk to them about their views and concerns. Talk to them about what you believe, and what you've been through growing up. Talk to them about lessons you've learned. Help them to learn from your mistakes.
We can help them to listen to the voice in their head that tells them that they are strong, they are good, and they are worth it. And that they deserve the best from others. We can amplify their good body image thoughts by mirroring it in our own lives. We can help them to see that the person in the mirror really is the fairest of all.