For as long as I can remember, at my school, thin girls were always the most popular. They would all usually follow the same ‘image pattern’: skinny body frames, thick, flowing hair, followed the latest fashion trends; make up was a must. Today, the excessive sexualisation of girls, alongside unrealistic body image ideals often lead to conditions such as anorexia, depression and low self-esteem in epidemic proportions. So, when did childhood become such an insecure, unhappy place? When did we start raising children who hate their bodies?
Numerous studies and surveys keep showing us that children as young as 4 have image issues, that the vast majority of teenagers want to lose weight and also suffer from depression, anxiety, and that they fear of not being ‘accepted’ by their peers if they don’t conform to a celebrity body stereotype.
If we take a look at the world young people live in today, we’ll get a better understanding of their perspective. Our society is thin-obsessed and that is an understatement. Movies, television shows, commercials, magazine ads, and other people brainwash young people into thinking that really thin is good and fat is bad. In most tv shows, the main ‘popular’ characters are all thin and beautiful, powerful and successful whereas the fewer ‘bigger’ characters are depicted as evil, weak, dumb, stupid, self-indulgent and silly.
With such role models being bombarded daily into their lives, would a child want to be fat or super thin? Psychotherapist Andrea Scherzer, who specialises in eating disorders, said “girls needed to build their self-confidence.They need to learn to value themselves as individuals first.It is with the guidance of parents and other adults in close contact with teens that they can learn to shift the focus of their negative preoccupation with body shape to that of building inner strength and self-confidence.” (BBC News)
Christina Zapata, is one of the two women who recovered from eating disorders and started Project HEAL, a non-profit organization to raise money for people in need to receive a scholarship for treatment for their eating disorder that they otherwise could not afford and insurance will not cover.
She says: “body image. No matter how young, old, what race you are, gender, hair color, height, weight — it affects us all.It is safe to say that I have had an unhealthy and exceptionally negative view of my body for about as long as I can remember.I know there are so many little girls out there right now thinking the same way. It breaks my heart, and it needs to be stopped.
The truth is, girls ‘learn’ to hate themselves, their bodies for whatever reason through different channels. For some of us it is a judgmental mother, a critical father, a competitive sibling, the list goes on and on. As for me, my “hate your body” teachers came from both the media and girls in school.” (GIRLilla warfare)
We, parents, need to help our children build up positive and healthy feelings about themselves regardless of their size and shape. Learning to look after and loving themselves, placing importance to their needs, and not neglecting their desires, too is of vital importance. We need to guide them towards keeping a healthy balance between damaging self loathing and even more damaging narcissistic traits. However, how can we achieve such a hard task when we also find the road to self-esteem and self-acceptance so long and difficult and even we, ourselves, are being affected by images of ‘super fit women’ ?
Parents: take action
Unless you have small children where you are in control of what they watch, you don’t really have much power on the influence media has on children’s view of themselves and of what is considered healthy or not. According to the American Psychological Association, the portrayal of women in media has become so unrealistic and sexualized it is now damaging girl’s mental health. These unrealistic expectations include size 0 women with flawless skin and big breasts and tall, muscular men with thick wavy hair.
Your children are never free of false definitions of female and male beauty which are also totally unfounded and artificially constructed. Unfortunately, we are raising a generation of children who are not confident about their bodies, they actually, hate them. They hate their own bodies and consequently themselves. They believe that no other accomplishment will ever be good enough if they are not ‘beautiful’; and by that they refer to the superficial photoshopped images shown on TV.
We, as parents, have the obligation to teach them that their most important assets are internal and not external. We need to nurture resilience in our daughters, and guide them towards shifting their focus from their appearance to more important aspects of themselves, such as their unique interests, the things they are good at the most, the hobbies they love doing, and their abilities. We shouldn’t forget that we are our children’s role models, so if they grow up watching us hating our own bodies, or judging other people’s appearances negatively, they will learn to do the same.
‘We can demand that our schools offer a media literacy program, for both boys and girls. We can become more media literate ourselves, and share our new knowledge with our daughters. Most importantly, we can begin the slow process of learning to love our own bodies, because we too have believed the lie.’ (Canadian Women’s Foundation)
We can also teach them how to be able to see through clever advertisements, aimed towards our insecurities. They manipulate us into thinking that specific products will make us more attractive and beautiful. Teach your children to point out these damaging to their self-esteem media methods.
Be a role good model
If you think your own self-esteem is underdeveloped, you must try and fix that first. You are the most important person in your children’s lives; your influence is most important on their development. They will find it easier liking and accepting themselves if they see accepting you first. You need to show them that supermodel looks are not what makes people feeling loved and happy. You also have to realise that at some point in their lives, your children will express dislike of their own bodies and that is normal. Patience and support are keys here.
You shouldn’t expect too much of them or of you; building healthy self-esteem and self-regard, is a long process.