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Building Blocks for
Children’s Body Image

By Marius Griffin
for the Body Image Task Force

 

A child’s world is no longer a simple or carefree place to grow. It has become filled with complex ethical and personal struggles that some of us find difficult to grapple with as adults, let alone as children or teens. Issues like drug abuse, violence, teen pregnancy and the decline in educational standards are well discussed and many solutions to these problems are being attempted. Buried among these acknowledged pressures are those as yet unspoken on a public basis: the dangers and destructiveness of mainstream body image in America.

It is now believed that a person’s basic body image is determined by age six. Contemporary life contributes many sources towards forming our self image: television programs and advertisements, magazines, billboards, the influence of child care providers, teachers, and day care workers, and others. All of these sources offer basically the same image of acceptable female appearance and a narrowing view of male physical acceptability as well. But by far the strongest influence on a child’s body image is parental body image. It is more likely that a child who grows up with a parent who increasingly disparages and seeks to alter his or her own body, will grow up to feel the same despair and practice the same destructive behaviors. And we see this pattern in the rise in cases of second- and third-generation eating disorders.

Body image has a dramatic effect on behavior. How many of us as adults have or have had a list of things we would do if only we could lose weight, be prettier, etc. Children begin to think in this pattern as well at a very young age. By fourth grade 80% of American girls have or are dieting. This startling figure is a good indicator of how well children pay attention to social messages of who is acceptable and who is not. In a study done with six year old children they were shown silhouettes of different people, then asked to talk about them. The children consistently labeled a silhouette of a fat child as "stupid, dirty, lazy, slow, etc.," regardless of the body size of the child identifying the picture.

Beyond fatphobia, body image issues for children touch on as many aspects of life as they do for adults. All forms of bigotry perpetuate all other forms of bigotry, and looksism, especially, helps to propel many current prejudices. How must the constant racist depiction of Asian women in advertising as compliant sex toys affect a young girl of Korean or Japanese ancestry? Class issues often combine with appearance to perpetuate the "never too thin or too rich" myth which certainly affects children’s view of the world. Ageism is entrenched in children’s literature as the older woman is almost always presented as ugly and evil, thus promoting their cultural obsession with avoiding natural aging. We can either choose to perpetuate intolerance by teaching it to our children or end this discrimination by confronting it in their environment and in ourselves.

Looksism also has a strong effect when practiced by adults against children. In one study, Dr. M. Clifford, education psychologist, and E. Hatfield, found that teachers took for granted that beauty and brains go together. The study provided different teachers with the same extensive student files. The files contained diverse and abundant information; student grades in reading, language, arithmetic, social studies, science, art, music and physical education. Their attitudes and work habits, and even a tally of absences. the only difference in the files given to different teachers was a "student photo" in the corner of the file. Based on the same information and different photos, teachers came up with completely different analysis of the information. Cute boys and girls were assumed more intelligent, more likely to get advanced degrees, able to get along better with other children, and to have parents more interested in their education. "Homely," or plain children were almost always rated lower in these and other areas even though the grades and factual information were exactly the same. In light of the evidence we now have about how expectation affects behavior, it is easy to see the devastating results looksist assumptions can have on the lives and future of our children.

HEALTH, KIDS & FAT

The primary determinant of body fat is biological heritage. More than 11 studies have tried to show that fat people eat more or differently than thin people, and all of them have failed. What these studies have shown is that fat people have exactly the same eating habits as thin people, some eat a lot, some eat little. We all have a thin friend who eats hardily and gains no weight, and yet few of us have conjectured that there may be fat people who eat very little. And studies of twins who were separated at birth and raised in different environments, found they were all within five pounds of each other. Each person has a natural weight range set by genetics.

One major reason for weight gain in American is dieting. It is well documented that at least 95% of all dieters gain back all the weight they lost within five years and that most of them gain back more weight than they lost. This raise in their weight is often irreversible. For children the consequences of dieting may be even more disastrous. While there is no health risk in being the weight you were born to be, whether that is fat or thin, there is always a cost to manipulating the body’s natural balance. In our experience and research, we have found that most people in America who are three times or more the average body size (400 lbs +) have dieted repeatedly, usually since childhood. In addition to the other well documented dangers of dieting (among them anxiety, anemia, immunity system deficiency, weakness, heart disease and decreased attention span), for pre-adolescents and teens dieting may dramatically and permanently alter the set-point of their body weight at a higher level than it naturally would be.

Other dangers of obsessive concern with weight and dieting in children are the way they can lead to eating disorders, malnutrition and drug abuse. Studies now show that most eating disorders begin with a diet. That the deprivation sets into motion dangerous physical and psychological forces that can lead to anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating. You cannot tell if a person has an eating disorder by looking at them, and many anorexics and bulimics become quite good at hiding their self-destructive behavior. The eventual results of this devastating disease can be death, and thousands die of eating disorders every year.

Malnutrition in children not attributable to poverty conditions has grown in America since the mid-eighties. First dubbed "Muesili Malnutrition" because of its emergence among "health conscious" families, it has since then spread to all levels and classes of our society. This malnutrition is caused in children because they do not eat enough of the food fat that they need for growth. In addition, fat carries vitamins to the rest of the body. While it may be a very good health choice for adults to monitor and examine food fat in their diets, the same is not true for children. Children need on average about twice the fat of adults for various growth and health related reasons. The American obsession with weight loss has endangered our children by causing parents to put children on low fat diets for their "health."

As complex an issue as any other aspect of the substance abuse problem, teens are using drugs to aid them in their battle against their bodies. Methamphetamines, specifically cocaine, have become the drug of choice among teenage girls trying to lose weight. Over the counter diet pills are being used in an abusive manner by young girls as well. Cigarette smoking has in recent years declined among every group except young women. Most often cited as the reason they began smoking and/or won’t quit, is the fear of weight gain.

For young men the problem is often perceived as the opposite of women’s; rather than trying to diminish their physical selves, they are incited to "pump up" and become "more powerful" and "real" men. This media bombardment coupled with the question caused by changing gender roles has led to record levels of steroid abuse by teen boys and the numbers are still growing. In addition, the weight gain/loss cycles pushed in wrestling and other competitive sports programs promote unhealthy eating patterns which are leading many young boys into eating disorders.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

The problem of looksism seems overwhelming. Its many destructive affects on our youth are seemingly beyond the ability of any one parent or person to change. But we can change things for the better as individuals, as families, and as ac community.

As individuals we can seek out information, question the truth of what
"everybody knows" and decide for ourselves what we believe. We can ask who profits from what information and how? (The diet industry alone makes 33 billion dollars a year, and this does not count weight loss surgeries, "fitness" equipment, novelty items such as pig magnets, or any of the thousands of other related products our weight obsessed culture produces.) As families we can discuss with each other and our children the images we see on television and how they affect us. We can actively participate in our children’s education and be aware of the attitudes teachers and caregivers are passing on to our children. As a community we can choose to specifically foster tolerance and diversity. We can bring our concerns up at social gatherings and community meetings. We can begin to change the problem by first recognizing that there is a problem. Some specific suggestions are:

  1. Provide children with alternate images. The problem really is not that there are many images of beauty constantly bombarding us. The problem is that there is really only one for each gender. Models looking like Barbie and GI-Joe should not be the standard for real life people to base their idea of personal success on, and yet many of us unconsciously do. We can help our children to understand that beauty comes in many packages by providing them with many images of real human diversity. Look through non-traditional magazines for images and books on other cultures. Take the opportunity when out with your child, to point out all the different ways real people look and how beautiful and interesting they are.
  2. Be aware of advertising and toys aimed at children. It is amazing the number of blond haired blue eyed dolls made for children. Even among sets of dolls (such as Barbie or Polly Pocket) the primary doll is almost always anglicized. Dark skin or dark hair among the doll population indicates a lesser being. Boy’s dolls or "action figures" reflect the "He-man" ideal of what makes men attractive and powerful. Many of the play products aimed at little girls are fashion and make-up oriented. All of these combine to perpetuate and emphasize to our children that women’s primary concern is their appearance and what appearance should be, and that all real men have the muscles to "prove and enforce it."
  3. Talk back to the television. And this goes for any outside "authority." Passivity is our worst enemy. Talk back to the T.V. when you disagree, and teach your children to do so. This counters the idea (often internalized) that you just have to accept comments made by the media. Write letters, they do have an impact, and include your children in your actions. Do not allow doctors or teachers to make harmful statements about or in front of your children unchallenged. Remember that "authorities" are people too, raised with the same cultural bias and myths as we were. Questioning them will help your children to develop the skills of making up their own mind in the face of outside pressure, as well as showing them that there is not just one way to see anything. Especially who they are "supposed" to be.
  4. Support your children in standing up for themselves. When the black child comes to a parent with a story of racist treatment at school, the parents don’t tell the child to bleach their skin or imply that it was their own fault. Then why do parents put children who are teased about their weight on a diet? When children are ridiculed about their appearance, it is important that adults support them in telling them that they are fine the way they are, and that it is not okay for other children to harass them.

As parents we want what is best for our children, as people we sometimes make mistakes. Most people who put their children on diets are not trying to cause them physical or emotional harm, but rather save them from the perceived health risks and cruelty our culture perpetuates. But the time has come for us to recognize that the health risks of dieting and bigotry, perpetuated by our appearance prejudices, are the real dangers, and must be changed. We cannot protect our children from looksism but we can teach them to recognize and fight it. ©

On March 25, 1994, eleven-year-old Brian Head shot and killed himself. Associated Press reports stated he was teased and ridiculed about being fat by his classmates until he felt he could do nothing else. When his peers were told of his death they showed no remorse. This pamphlet is dedicated to him in the hope that it takes no more such losses to show us that prejudice ultimately kills.

Written by Marius Griffin. Produced by the Body Image Task Force, P.O. Box 360196, Melbourne, FL 32936. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for more informational handouts or with requests for specific references. Permission to reproduce for educational purposes granted as long as content is not changed and credit is given. Visit our website at http://home.earthlink.net/~dawn_atkins/bitf.htm

 

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