By: Shannon Ralph
From the moment my daughter was born, I was prepared. I knew how I wanted her to feel about her body and I armed myself with all the resources needed to counteract the hostile views of the female body we are bombarded with on a daily basis. I read numerous articles about body image and little girls. What to say to them about their bodies. What not to say to them about their bodies. How to address the skewed images of women my daughter will undoubtedly see in the media.
I know all the facts. I know that The Guardian reports that by age 10, a third of all girls indicate that the way their body looks is their top concern in life. Their TOP concern! And according to PBS, the Keep It Real campaign recently found that more than 80% of girls have tried dieting at least once by age 10. Thigh gaps have become a teen status symbol—even if it takes poor nutrition habits and overexercising to get there. PBS also reports that hospitalizations for eating disorders have more than doubled in the past decade among girls under age 12. A new study from the University of Leeds found that the concept of “fat prejudice” starts as young as age 4. And according to the New York Times, a 2011 study analyzing more than 5,000 girls clothing items on 15 popular websites found that nearly 30 percent had “sexualizing characteristics.”
And—get this—even our children’s board games have become body-conscious! In 2013, The Atlantic analyzed just how the board game Candyland has changed since its debut in the 1940s. They discovered that female characters like Princess Lolly and Queen Frostine had undergone a “hot makeover,” complete with smaller waistlines, fuller lips and bigger, brighter eyes. Even preschool girls as young as 3 can’t escape the ideal body type madness!
The research is exhaustive and clear.
We, as a society, are waging war on our little girls’ bodies.
When my daughter was born, I was ready. I had my facts straight and knew exactly how I wanted my daughter to feel about her body. To think about her self-worth. I was prepared to wage war on negative body image.
Never in a million years did it occur to me that my real concern should have been her twin brother.
In the last week alone, my 8-year-old son has made numerous comments about his body. On Monday, while getting ready for bed, he climbed onto the bathroom scale after his twin sister and was devastated to find that he weighed three pounds more than her. I explained that he is a full inch taller than her, but my words did little to appease his sadness.
On Tuesday, he came to me with his shirt lifted above his tummy to tell me that his tummy is much bigger this year than it was last year. I explained that he is a year older and, of course, his body is growing and getting bigger and stronger every day. My words did little to appease his worry.
On Thursday, he off-handedly remarked that he needed to start exercising because he was getting too big. I explained that he gets all the exercise he needs playing and running and just being an 8-year-old boy. My words did little to appease his conviction that exercise was the key.
Anyone who has met my son knows full well that he is a tiny little peanut of a boy. He is healthy. Incredibly smart. Funny. Clever. A generally happy little boy. Why would he be obsessed with his body? And if he mentions it to me at least three times in one week, how much precious time is he spending thinking about it? Worrying about it? Wishing he could change his amazing self?
This revelation breaks my heart.
It is not just our little girls who are negatively affected by our society’s fascination with unattainable body images. Our little boys are suffering, too—often in silence because our culture discourages boys from talking about their feelings.
Our images of ideal masculinity are as superfluous and damaging as our images about the female body.
This has to stop.
Our little boys and our little girls need to know that they are so much more than their bodies. Their bodies are merely a housing—a shell—for their extraordinary souls. Their generous, kind, funny, hard-working, determined, intelligent, talented souls. These are the traits we need to start valuing.
As a parent, these are the traits I intend to celebrate in my children. No longer will we talk about my son’s body as if THAT is who he is. He is so much more.
More importantly, perhaps, no longer will I talk about my body as if that is all I am. I realize that I am just as much to blame as television and magazines and video games and social media. Actions speak louder than words and I now realize that I am modeling poor body image to my children.
Every time I comment on the weight I’ve gained, my son listens. Every time I complain about my big thighs or my flabby stomach, he hears. Every time I dismiss a compliment from my wife with a joking, “You must be blind,” my son soaks it in.
I am teaching my beautiful little boy that a “perfect” body is what makes a person valuable. And anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
It has to stop.
And it begins with us, as parents.