When Children Hate Their Bodies—
What Parents Can Do To Help
By Jean Rubel, Ph.D.
Adapted from an article by Jean Rubel in the Fall 1987 edition of Radiance.
Megan, who has always been the tallest and largest child in her class, comes home from the fourth grade in tears because classmates told her she was too fat to play with them. She spends the afternoon alone with her Barbie doll, pretending that she, like Barbie, is tiny, delicate, popular, and thin.Sarah, a slender eighth-grader, believes she is too fat. Hoping to avoid comments about her "thunder thighs," she refuses to wear a bathing suit ona family beach outing. She tells her mother she hates her "ugly" body, which she hides under layers of loose, shapeless clothing.
At seventeen, Dianne has never had a date. A boy once told her he could not take her to a school dance because, "What would my friends say if they saw me with you?" Ever since then she has hated her strong, sturdy body. Megan, Sarah, and Dianne represent a generation of children who are terrified of being fat. Research tells us that young girls fear becoming
fat more than they fear nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents. They realize that in our culture having a large body often means criticism, rejection, and self-hatred.
How can we help these young people? First we need to understand their perspective. This is easy. We all live in a thin-obsessed society. Next, we need to help children build positive feelings about themselves regardless of their size and shape. This is harder. Even adults find the road to self-esteem long and difficult. We can, however, smooth some of the bumps for young people.
Let's take a look at the world young people live in. How do they come to regard fat with such dread and loathing? Movies, television shows, commercials, magazine ads, and other people tell them hundreds of times a day that thinness is good and fatness is bad. Think about your favorite television show or movie. There are probably more thin characters than fat ones, and the thin characters are more likely to be popular, beautiful, powerful and successful. Fat people, if there are any, are probably depicted as evil, weak, stupid, silly, or self-indulgent. Now, given such models, would a child want to be fat or thin?
In addition to thinness, the media have other requirements for an acceptable physical appearance. Girls and women are supposed to be tall andyoung with thick, flowing hair and flawless skin. Boys and men are supposed to be taller, muscular, and firm-jawed with lots of thick, wavy hair. The media doesn't tell children that only a very few people have the genetic makeup necessary to achieve these fantasy bodies.
Almost all of us have been taught to hate fat. Unless we have spent considerable effort understanding and challenging our cultural obsession with thinness, we automatically condemn fat in ourselves and others. Think of the last time you shopped for clothes. Did you stand in front of the mirror and criticize your body? Did you talk about being fat? Were your children listening?
Have you ever stopped your car at a crosswalk and commented on the appearance of pedestrians? Maybe the ample woman in tight jeans? Did you admire the slim person? Maybe envy him or her a bit? Did your children hear you? Young people are not stupid. They perceive our beliefs and biases even if we try to hide them.
Children learn such attitudes quickly. In one study of girls ages nine to eighteen, every one feared being fat. Fifty percent of the nine-year-olds had dieted. Almost 90 percent of the seventeen-year-old girls dieted regularly. They all believed that dieting is the normal way to eat. It isn't, of course, but lots of people think it is.
Young people are so preoccupied with thinness that in many cases they lose the ability to see themselves realistically. In a study of 192 female students at the University of Oregon, 157 (82 percent) believed that they weighed too much. Consequently they wanted to lose weight. According to medical height/weight tables, only 15 (8 percent) were actually overweight. Self-esteem should not be based on physical appearance, but let's face it, to a large extent it is. How we look affects how we feel about ourselves and how others react to us. Many of us have fought through years of self-doubt and diets, trying to please ourselves and others by achieving a magically perfect body.
Some of us have finally made peace with our bodies, learning to love them regardless of their size and shape. But what about children? They are vulnerable to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. They agonize at the merest hint of rejection by friends and (which is frequently excessive thinness), they will be happy and other people will like them.
Building satisfying relationships with peers is a developmental step that young people must take by themselves. It's part of growing up. As much as we want to make things easy for our children, we can't solve relationship problems for them. We can, however, teach them how to negotiate problems in relationships in effective, respectful ways that leave them feeling good about themselves.
We can also help them accept and appreciate themselves. To do that, we must do four things: (1) become conscious observers of our culture, (2) explain the motives and (3) the methods of media to our children, and, most important of all, (4) become good role models.
To help our children appreciate their unique gifts and talents, we must explain to them how society pressures all of us to conform to an unrealistic, impossible image. Watch television with your children. Leaf through some of their magazines. Look for and point out all the blatant and subtle messages that insist we be thin and look like Cheryl Tiegs, Brooke children and see how many real people look like those air-brushed, artfully made-up, beauty-shop-coiffed fantasies.
Show your children that good looks, even stunning good looks, do not guarantee happiness. Point out examples of divorce, drug, and suicide problems that beset the so-called beautiful people. Then introduce your children to people who genuinely like themselves and who do not look like super stars.
Many young people believe that advertisers and the people who create television shows, movies, magazines, clothing, and make-up really care about their customers. Shatter this illusion. The bottom line for media producers, advertisers, and manufacturers is money-pure and simple.
Teach your children to recognize the methods advertisers use to get us to spend our money for their products. Most ads and commercials do two things: (1) they create or intensify a need, and (2) they offer something to meet that need.
Manufacturers are not dumb. They look for needs and then fill them, or create new products and convince us that we need them. For example. do any of us really need high-priced carbonated water laced with preservatives and artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners? Of course not. Plain tap water is a cheaper, healthier, and more effective thirst quencher. The makers of diet soda, however, have led us to believe that we must have their product if we want to be attractive, popular, and part of the in-crowd. So we buy something we really don't need, and diet soda sales bring their makers billions of dollars of profit each year.
How about ads for clothing, cosmetics, hair-care products, and diet aids? Manufacturers know that most of us are insecure about our bodies. They exploit our insecurities by suggesting that in our natural state we are inadequate. They insist that we need their product to be happy, self-confident, popular, and successful. Of course we'll never look like their model who is six feet tall and wears size three jeans. The ads, however, suggest that we just might if we keep buying the product. So we do. Do your children a favor by pointing out this media method of manipulating their self-esteem and your checkbook.
BE A GOOD ROLE MODEL
If you want to influence your children, what you are and what you do has far more impact than what you say. You can talk nonstop about social and media pressures, but if you don't set a good example, you might as well talk to a wall. Don't criticize your body. Love it instead. Say kind things about it. Nourish and exercise it with love. Dress it comfortably and with style. Pamper it with rest and relaxing baths when it's tired. Let your children see and hear you love your body, and they will learn how to love theirs. Don't automatically deny yourself life's pleasures because you think your body isn't right. Enjoy tempting desserts without protesting, "Oh, I really shouldn't." Buy colorful, stylish clothes that express zest for life. Don't hide. Take trips, go on outings, and enjoy what you want to enjoy.
And above all, if you want to help your children develop healthy self-esteem, you must develop your own first. Take classes, read books, get into support groups-do anything that helps you feel terrific aboutyourself. After all, you're the most important person in your children's lives. If they see that you like yourself, they will find it easier to like themselves. Lead the way by giving them an ever-present example of self-regard. Show them that a movie star body is not a requirement forhappiness and self-love. One last word of advice: All children at one time or another are unhappy with their bodies. As you offer support, be patient with this painful part of growing up. Don't expect too much of them or yourself. Building healthy self-esteem takes a long time. If your children get stuck along the way, provide additional help through professional therapy or counseling. Support your children as they learn to feel good about themselves in a world that makes self-appreciation very difficult. ©
JEAN RUBEL, Ph.D., is founder and president of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED).
ANRED is a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive information about anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other less well-known eating disorders. All information is free and available on the Internet. The site is revised and updated monthly.