Body Image and Our Kids: Getting the Words Right

Image by Ed L on Flickr
Image by Ed L on Flickr

By Cherie Ditcham

In the film Memento, a man suffering from short-term memory loss tattoos clues to himself on his body to help remind him of his identity. Unfortunately, the memory he is remembering isn’t the real story. Now, imagine if every word that you spoke about yourself appeared on your skin like a tattoo. What would these tattoos say? Would you want your children to wear these words too? Probably not. The words we use to describe ourselves impact our attitudes about our bodies and our own beauty. And we pass these on to our children, for better or for worse.

By being mindful of their words and actions, parents can help their children develop a healthier body image. Studies support the theory that the everyday messages we pass on to our children through our words can build them up and make them feel valued, or they can belittle, demean, or damage their self-worth. Higher levels of self-esteem are fostered when parents model qualities and values they want their children to have.

As a child, I looked to my mother for clues about who I was and could be. I admired her beauty and mimicked her. Unfortunately, she had a lot of trouble finding confidence in her identity, and she hated her body. Unintentionally, witnessing her confused words and actions damaged my self-esteem and my own feelings of self-worth.

From a very young age, I saw my Malaysian immigrant mother experience anxiety about her non-Caucasian appearance and body. Difficulties in assimilating and cultural barriers in communication made her feel as if she didn’t belong. She inspected herself in the mirror frequently and spoke of herself in negative and demeaning terms like “ugly” and “fat.”  To alleviate her self-loathing, my mother made efforts to change her natural appearance through diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery.

It wasn’t her fault. My mother did not receive guidance on how to manage her self-esteem. She came from a family of 12, from a generation of traditional Malaysian women that raised their daughters to find their only value in putting others first. As a result, I didn’t grow up in an environment where we had the opportunity to discuss, theoretically or philosophically, the role that beauty plays in constructing our social identity. We blindly consumed media and advertising messages about beauty.

According to a study conducted by the National Institute on Media and Family, 53% of American girls aged 13 are “unhappy with their bodies.” By the time girls are 17 years old, this statistic grows to 78%. These statistics demonstrate the media’s effect on body image, but they don’t completely fix the issue of increasing numbers of women suffering from beauty anxieties, body hatred, and shame.

Greater media literacy will help decode the messages about our bodies that we receive and fight against the flawed belief that our self-worth and social value are derived from attaining physical perfection. Specialized education programs that focus on interrogating and evaluating media texts and deconstructing contemporary examples of beauty will help people view unrealisticmessages with a critical eye and prevent us from projecting these unattainable standards onto ourselves. However, though increased media education will make us more aware of these illusions, it won’t change the fact that we live in a media culture that reinforces a cultural idolatry of physical perfection.

A large portion of the mediaregurgitates the message that physical appearance is a valid indicator of social significance and self-worth. The media brands our flaws and imperfections as social failures. Without intervention, these psychologically damaging media messages are inked onto our kids’ mindsets like a tattoo. With repeated exposure, they reinforce kids’ feelings of failure, deficiency, and lack of self-worth, despite their accomplishments.

A long-term solution is to take the responsibility for our self-worth into our own hands. We have the power to redefine the role that beauty plays in our lives by recognizing value in the expression of the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of ourselves as our beauty.

An unhealthy body image can form in almost everybody because it arises out of over exposure to powerful and pervasive cultural messages. When we respond to advertising by internalizing messages that tell us we are “not enough” and not beautiful without a little help from our cosmetic friends, we can easily begin to feel discouraged about our bodies. Now, we can either let the stories we tell ourselves undermine our self-confidence, or we can train our mind to focus on loving and accepting ourselves. A healthier body image is attainable if we cultivate a discerning, media-resilient mindset.

So how, specifically, can parents help their children develop a healthy body image?

Parents can encourage their children to ask questions and talk about beauty. They can teach their children to acknowledge and affirm themselves and others in both physical and non-physical ways.

A really great way of doing this is by playing a “question game.” Parents can point out a person, then ask their children what makes that person beautiful. By suggesting that a person’s beauty is not solely derived from appearance, this will be the first step to creating a foundation of self-esteem built upon holistic values, one that equally recognizes all of our unique talents and gifts.

In addition, modeling positive self-talk is the best immediate remedy for fostering healthy body image. We can’t be afraid to talk to our children about their bodies or address their feelings about their identity. We need to get involved in practicing media literacy at home. In 2008, Dove released its “Onslaught” video to promote the urgency and importance of speaking truth to our children about their beauty, before the beauty industry can force-feed them damaging messages.

Parents can also help foster emotional resiliency in their children. By finding opportunities to teach children how to address beauty anxieties, they can help them be better equipped to handle negative messages. Children who feel frustrated or discouraged about themselves and their bodies can benefit from learning stress coping skills from parents, such as replacing negative thoughts with thoughts of self-care and self-love.

For example, only a few weeks ago, I got a new phone and was discovering some of its new features with the help of my six-year old niece. She loves playing with phones and gadgets. This new smartphone was so fancy that I was unfamiliar with a lot of its built-in camera features. While we were taking some clown-faced selfies together, I noticed that in the camera settings, the phone offered me an app called “Beauty Face”. Intrigued, I investigated it further. I found that the app allowed you to take a photograph of a face and then manipulate the size and appearance of the features. For example, you can make your eyes bigger, skin smoother, face shape slimmer, and lips poutier.  My ever-curious niece wanted me to give the new app a whirl, so we put the app on “automatic” settings and took a photo of her. To our surprise (and my horror), Beauty Face took away my niece’s freckles, which she often calls her “kisses from angels.” This upset her greatly, and she immediately began to ask me if her freckles were bad. Instead of ignoring her feelings, I used this as an opportunity to teach her coping skills for beauty anxieties with a face mask.

The goal of the exercise was to pay attention to our negative thoughts and focus on turning them around with self-care. I explained to my niece that we use face masks to take care of our skin. She asked me if the face mask would help to take her freckles away. I assured her that I hoped it wouldn’t and that it would brighten them, because they are so beautiful. My niece seemed to feel less self-conscious as she looked at herself with the silly mask on her face. She couldn’t wait to show off her freckles and celebrate about how many angels had kissed her after she removed the face mask.

If we want our children to develop healthy self-esteem and body image from a young age, we also need to be brave enough to remove some of the tattoos we have drawn on ourselves.  Mindfulness training has helped me to identify untruthful stories that are working within me and coincidentally show up on me in negative self-talk. By learning the tools to go within, acknowledge, evaluate, and affirm our own feelings, we teach ourselves (and our children) self-acceptance.

As a teenager, I needed a mother who was better informed on how to give guidance on beauty and the role it plays in determining our self-worth and identity. I now recognize the power in celebrating my personal view of beauty. By expressing beauty in many ways – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically – and in remembering to make the time to nurture these areas, I am reminded of who I am.

Melbourne-born Cherie Leena Ditcham is a writer, children’s author, and fashion model (LA Models) based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @cherieleena.

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