Monday, April 8, 2013

Body Image on the Playground: The Subtle Messages All Around

The other day, it was finally starting to feel like Spring had sprung. After my husband arrived home from work, we got the kids ready and went out for a walk to a nearby playground, a popular place, now that it's not covered in snow. As we approached, Delilah was delighted to see a gaggle of older girls swinging on the monkey bars, teeter-tottering, laughing, and chatting. A red-headed 12 year old graciously shared the teeter-totter with an overjoyed 3 year old Delilah, before rejoining her girlfriends as they impressively and athletically navigated the playground equipment.

As Delilah made her way around the structures, I overheard one of the girls ask the other, "Do you think it's bad to weigh 99 pounds in 8th grade?" The girl shrugged and said she didn't know. The first girl continued, "Because I weigh 99 pounds. Do you think that's bad?"

My heart sank. This lovely, healthy 13 year old girl, who had moments before been confidently recounting her recent achievements in gymnastics, was seeking approval from peers about her weight. Was concerned that her number on the scale might be "bad."

As we left the park, I told my husband about what I'd overheard, and how sad it had made me. He remarked that she probably watches "those celebrity shows," teeming with messages about weight, desirability, ideal body types, and the like. I couldn't shake it off quite so easily, and reminded him that such messages come from many more directions than the luminous screen of the television. After all, our own daughter had just heard one right there, on the playground.

The whole scenario got me thinking about just how abundant those messages are, even in our family, where we are conscious about how we talk about our bodies; even in our home, where we painstakingly supervise screen time and almost exclusively limit our daughter's TV viewing to Netflix, where she's not subjected to commercials. Still, she sees me smile and hears me excitedly report my weight loss to her father when I step on the scale once a week. She hears the Wii-Fit tell her that "It's time to say goodbye to Winter, and let's say goodbye to some of that fat on our tummies, too!" She hears various extended family members talk about losing weight and the calorie content of various food items. She sees the disappointment on my face when I pull on a pair of pre-pregnancy jeans only to find that I can't quite zip them yet. And she hears girls on the playground, who she looks up to, question whether their weight might be "bad."

This leaves me with a lot of questions, and very few answers. Our children are not raised in a vacuum. Even those of us who are body positive, who abhor fat-shaming, who work to model healthy relationships with food and our bodies, even we cannot prevent our children from learning that numbers on scales or sizes on clothing labels are a measure of their worth as human beings.

So what do we do? What can we do? In a world where a Victoria's Secret commercial asks, "What is Sexy?" and proceeds to answer its question with images of women who are all tall and thin with long legs and breasts that are somehow both large and perky, how do we teach our children that sexy is different things to different people, and that more importantly, sexy isn't the only thing matters? Is it even possible to raise children, girls especially, who grow into adults who feel good about their bodies, even if they don't fit the "ideal" image that is thrust in their face at every turn?

We talk about how every body is a beautiful body. We talk about how our bodies are strong and about all of the amazing things they can do. We talk about how bodies come in different shapes and sizes and that different shapes and sizes are neither bad nor good. We eat a variety of healthy foods and we indulge in sweets in moderation. We don't label foods as "good" or "bad." We do physically active things as a family and individually.

What more can we be doing? This question is not rhetorical, I sincerely want to know, what more can I do so that my daughter will not be mostly faking a positive body image for the benefit of her own children, the way that I am for mine? What sorts of things do you do to help instill a positive body image and an appreciation for the diversity in body types for your children?


  1. I don't know either, but I am right there with you. My daughter has brought up the "fat" thing, when she was only 4. I also do not put down others for their appearance, but you're right that it's impossible to filter everything and even if we could, it's only a temporary filter.

    I am making a point to tell her that looks are not SO important as being kind being a good person. When she used to tell me I'm "cute," by way of a compliment, I would graciously accept it but had a talk with her that I would rather she tell me that I am funny or sweet or something ELSE. Now she tells me, "I don't care if you're ugly, you know." So that kinda backfired.
    I've started pointing out things which I find beautiful in other people that society or the television choose NOT to celebrate. "Look at her braids and those beads in her hair, that's so pretty!" or "Oh, she has the most lovely freckles!" and things of that nature. I really do think it's helping her to see that beauty is quite varied.
    But the weight comments, those ones have me stumped.

    1. This is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for. Whenever someone else compliments Delilah on being cute, I always chime in "She's also smart and loving!" :)

      I love the idea of commenting on beautiful facets of other people, whether their appearance, their talents, or their personality.

  2. i love this! Kallan (13 years old) and i were just talking about a show choir show we she was in. The college group that also participated has women
    (and men)of a wide gamut of sizes. One of the women who is really wonderful at both the dancing and singing is really very large... Kallan was telling me (and i agreed) how beautiful she is, what a great singer and dancer she is AND she is a great dancer as well. WE talked about how the "world" might see her and how we see her, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, HALLELUJAH!

    Now How did i come to "raise" such a brilliant child? I talk to her... when i see someone who i think in beautiful-- man or woman-- i saw so and i saw why i find them so appealing-- That Shiny deep dark chocolatey skin, the smile that goes all the way to the eyes, the way she walks, head up, shoulders back... looking everyone in the eye... When you share with your children, share the why, share the deeper vision and they will learn to see it too!

    1. Thanks for your comment Sarah, I love the idea of describing what we find beautiful in other people and why! <3

  3. Such an important post. Thanks for sharing - will be pinning, tweeting and sharing on my Feminist Media Roundup!

  4. We have three daughters and they are cut from very different molds. As the middle has been sneaking up height wise on the oldest certain family members have egged on a competition. We're now working to emphasize their differences, embracing them and reminding them that the reason we wanted three daughters was because we knew that they would be so different. It's tough navigating this terrain, because we don't want to work so hard to prevent them being hurt that we actually create insecurities. Great post. I think the more we are aware, the better chance we have.


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