- Susie Csorsz Brown
Weight is a topic that many people don't like to address, don't like to think about, and yet we worry about it. We worry about it for our own bodies, for our families, and in general. There are any number of myths and misconceptions floating around about weight; it is easier to google your questions than it is to find and turn to a qualified person for answers. Too fat. Too tall. Too skinny. Too scrawny. Too chubby. At what point do we become 'just right'?
Those of us who are parents realize the huge importance of the weight question in regards to our children from well before our kids are even born. From the moment that they are just a little collection of cells in utero, how much they weigh is an important consideration. As our kids get into their tween and teen years, weight becomes even more of an issue: puberty hits in spurts and at random, with some kids shooting up in 5th grade and others still waiting with baited breath in 9th. Weight they gain will help support their super-sized growth spurts and development of 'grown-up' features (wider shoulders, hips, breasts, etc). Or, conversely, weight they gain becomes the dreaded 'love handles' that they will endeavor to lose, as weight becomes a sensitive topic, circled with whispers and hushed tones. For women especially, the number on the scale becomes this all-consuming obsession. To be honest, I don't actually know how much I weigh; I go by how my clothes fit and how I feel because that, for me, is a much more important indicator of my level of health than is a number on a device. The number on the device responds to so many other factors -- level of hydration, time of the month, time of day, etc -- as well as not budging at all in response to others -- working out, eating well, etc. And, even more confusingly, gaining muscle mass (which is a more dense type of tissue) will increase that number at the same time as helping your body to be more fit ... the numbers don't always add up.
I don't think it is at all appropriate to address all weight-related questions and topics in a blog post. Helplessly watching my sister struggle for years with an eating disorder taught me one thing: there is no 'silver bullet' to remedy an eating disorder. Is there a trigger? Maybe. But know this, too: many eating disorders are not necessarily about weight. Please don't think I am brushing off eating disorders as a trivial topic; it is too big and complex to do it proper justice.
Let's talk about body image. How do we even know what 'normal' is supposed to look like? How do we help our kids understand what healthy looks like? How do we set the stage for a healthy body image? What does that even mean? 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. From the very moment we are cognizant of the images around us, we are subjected to an array of air-brushed images that begin to play with our concept of 'normal'. 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 in the photoshop; 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 model a healthy relationship with food. One that does not involve bingeing, complex and severe dieting patterns, and relying heavily of processed foods. We can eat foods we can pronounce like whole grains and fruits and veggies, and drink plenty of water, and enjoy what we eat because it brings us the energy we need to actively get through the day. We can eat sweets in moderation and not hide our consumption due to feelings of shame at what we are choosing to eat. We can appreciate new flavors and foods, and share these with our families.
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 understand that strong is better than skinny. We can chose to be active and try a variety of sports. We can be active because we love the feelings of movement, and we want to laugh with abandon and embrace the joy we feel when we are moving moving moving. We can keep up with our kids and challenge them to do more, get sweatier, play harder and move because it feels good. We can learn a new sport.
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.