Did you know that 75% of eight to nine year old girls say they like the way they look? According to Teens Before Their Time, only 56% of girls like the way they look by the time they are teenagers. What happened to the 75% of girls who liked they way they looked when they were eight or nine? Surrounded by messages about how they should look, about what they should and shouldn’t eat, their self image evolved… and not in the way you’d hope. As parents, we sometimes lose sight of our role in helping our kids develop a positive body image. It should be about building a healthy body and helping our children see that it has great value as well as nurturing a positive body image. We cannot simply reassure our kids about the way they look and hope for the best.
This blog was originally published in part, in Richmond Family Magazine, and it served as a chance to reflect on my own parenting journey. As the mother of three sons and then daughters, I assure you that I have seen the spectrum of how children develop their own self-image. If I had one wish for my own kids, it would be that developing a positive body image was about being healthy and physically fit and not about looking good . When I serve my family healthy foods, I try to help them make the connection between what they eat and how they feel. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying, “When you eat healthy foods, you grow a big, strong body that will run fast and play hard.” What kid wouldn’t buy into that body image? On the other hand, I have heard parents say, “If you only eat those french fries, you’ll definitely get fat.” That’s a mixed message and very difficult for children to understand. How can something that tastes so good (french fries) make my growing body turn into something bad (i.e. fat), and why would you serve it to me in the first place if this were true?
Where does body image come from? For the young child who has to be coaxed into cleanliness and the bathtub, there’s very little thought about appearances, but almost overnight it seems, kids are growing up and broad-sided by puberty. Boys and girls both are confronted with amazing changes in their bodies. It’s almost expected that they will become more interested in their appearance around this time. All the changes they are experiencing are hard to ignore. Developing a healthy body image means that most of a child’s feelings and ideas about his or her body are positive ones, but ensuring that this happens takes real effort. The world around our kids doesn’t always reassure and lead them in the direction of a healthy self-image. During the tween and teen years, there are constant messages about how to look and dress, about what looks cool and what will fit in with others. Each child’s body is made differently, and it’s often hard to accomplish the right ‘look,’ or to feel pretty and confident with a rapidly changing body out to thwart efforts at every turn.
I sometimes compare a person’s body to a car. You only get one, and it has to last for a long time, but not everybody gets a Porsche. Some bodies develop faster than others; some ‘makes’ of cars are more popular than others. Sometimes a good car wash and a coat of wax go a long way to make the car look really good.
The car analogy bridges nicely for kids to a discussion of what they see in the media. Every TV star has a fancy sports car and usually the ‘look’ to go with it. Our children are immersed in media with the same message in many different formats. Make-up and hair gel and clothes, they are all available to ensure that you look and feel just right. Buy this stuff, and happiness comes with it. Most often, these products are sold by super-thin models and glamorous media personalities who have created unrealistic ideas of what a healthy body actually is.
It takes time for children to mature and to develop a complete self-image. We know that our kids are much more than how they look to friends, but they are only just discovering this truth. All the extra time spent in the bathroom fine tuning appearance isn’t time wasted. Think of the adults you know with stalled adolescent behavior. Maybe they weren’t allowed time to be introspective and self-absorbed as teens! Remember that adolescent fashion statements are an expression of emerging personality, but our kids are also working to gain acceptance and to find a place in something bigger than themselves. No surprise that some get lost along the way. The media with its love of Photoshop are no help either. This video clip gained national recognition when it went viral, but I have not seen enough outrage among kids for being misled by the media.
Most kids fall short of their ideal body image, and they can obsess about whatever body part that doesn’t match the media definition of ideal, but if their concerns become a focus for constant comparison and seem out of proportion to their other interests, it may be a reason to speak to your child’s doctor. Kids who are overly fixated on weight or who restrict their diet and exercise excessively may need professional attention. Conditions like body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia nervosa or bulimia are real medical conditions, and there are treatments.
As we watch our children grow, we should think of ourselves as the balancing mirror to the one they use every day in the bathroom. I want to help my child to see what I see…even if there are a few zits to accompany that inner sense of humor and beautiful smile.
Your children are my patients. Remember to be generous with your compliments, and be sincere. He does look nice in those new jeans, even if you’d prefer he hadn’t chosen the skinny ones. She does have a really graceful walk and a warm smile… even with braces. We give our children a gift that their peers cannot when we hold up a loving mirror for them to see what we see.
Gayle Schrier Smith, MD
(who now only says “Mirror, Mirror… on the wall. I’ve become my Mother, after all!)