“I wanna be naked baby!”, squeals my 2 1/2 year old daughter, Ella, as she pulls her diaper off and runs through the house shrieking “..naked baby!, naked baby!...”
Yes, getting Ella dressed these days is a bit of a challenge. Her proud display of her body and wanting to feel the ‘freedom’ of no clothes occurs nearly every morning. Frustrating? Not really. I am reveling in her innocence and appreciative of her indulgence of self.
As a children’s therapist I can recall several female clients, who at such an early age, questioned their physical appearance and the impact their appearance had on their ability to make friends, be popular, get good grades or excel at sports. Body image is directly related to a girl’s view of self.
“There is every reason to believe that the desire among females to be beautiful is due to social conditioning, and it is a powerful force in the vast majority of cultures and societies. For centuries, women have busied themselves with the manufacture of cosmetics and textiles for clothing. The desire to have a beautiful house and a beautifully clad body-the drive to make an art work of one’s self - is an ancient one” indicates Gisela Preuschoff, author of Raising Girls.
“Nearly every mother takes pleasure in fitting her little daughter with pretty ‘feminine’ clothes, adorable shoes and even her first jewelry.” continues Preuschoff. “The portrayal of women in magazines, on television and in film is almost always a distorted version of reality,” states Gisela . “Women who do not conform to the ‘ideal’ are either invisible, or not invited to participate, so we seldom see them, even though they are the majority . And for women who are professionally successful, the more beautiful they are, the more interesting they become-to the media, at least.”
A research study published in a British Psychology journal in 2005 indicated that 47% of girls by the age of six are already worrying about their weight and wanting to be thinner. Although girls age 5 in the study seem to be relatively unconcerned about weight, by age six and seven, body image is all important. Researchers state that peer pressure and media images are having a bigger influence on younger girls. Unfortunately this research suggests that these young children are potentially facing body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and self-esteem issues. By nurturing our children to accept and love their bodies’ individuality we can foster our daughter’s healthy view of self.
Parents can help their children feel comfortable with their bodies by:
*Talking about body types. Discuss with your child that each person has a different body size. Some children are tall, some are short, some have large bone structure, some are small. Explain that genetics plays an important, predetermined factor in our appearance. Using family photos, pictures of other children of various sizes and attributes will provide a tangible reference for your child. Most important, explain that your child’s looks does not limit her potential.
*Examine your own expectations. Recognize if you are putting unnecessary pressure on your child. Everyone grows at different rates, so comparing her to another child or sibling puts him in the shadow of another, not allowing him to grow at his own pace. As puberty approaches, a child’s body changes dramatically, be prepared at around age 9 to start discussing body changes. Be aware that before children shoot up in height they round out in weight.
*Keep your child moving. Be a role model for your child by keeping fitness in your family’s routine, with emphasis on how it makes you feel, rather than how it makes you look.
* Don’t make a fuss about food. Offering a well balanced diet, but allowing your child to dictate how much he eats teaches him/her to respect internal hunger cues. Additionally, food should never be a moral issue, offered as a reward or punishment. Consumption should be in moderation. Deprivation can lead to bingeing and dieting which can impede growth.
*Discuss teasing. Teach your child resilience by role playing and brainstorming solutions to hurtful comments and teasing.
*Distinguish between body conscious and body obsession. Keep tabs on your child’s image of herself. There is a difference between asking “Do I look fat?” and refusing to go out because of her appearance.
*Know when to worry. Some behavior cues which indicate additional help is needed include: monitoring calorie intake, worries about her weight, sudden or unusual dietary intake, depression, refusing to participate in activities, athletic or social.
*Celebrate other qualities of your child. Don’t just preach that there are other qualities besides looks. Nurture and compliment your child’s humor, creativity, kindness, humility, etc.; characteristics that are essential to living a fulfilling life.
*Watch our body language. Even when we don’t think our children are listening, they are! A flippant comment made about your weight or complaining about a certain physical aspect of ourselves can undermine a child’s confidence. Most important, don’t ever tease your child about her physical characteristics. A comment from the people she relies on most, her parents can make her feel flawed.
*Know what your child is reading and watching. Most pre-teen and teen magazines emphasize appearance with tips on make-up, clothes, and hair. However, there are also magazines which highlight a girl’s accomplishments, intelligence and spirit. Such magazines include: New Moon, Hopscotch for Girls, American Girl, New Girl Times and Bluejean magazine. Some websites to check out: TeenVoices.com, Gurl.com, AboutFace and A Girl’s World.
*Dispel media myths. Discuss with your child the realism that most people do not look like what they see in magazines, videos or on TV You may even want to point out that our graphic technology today allows for alterations to photos and TV images. Although we do not want to criticize the idols they have selected, we DO want to encourage critical thinking about their idol’s image. Posing such questions as, “Is it realistic for girls to wear those outfits...to school? ...to play?” , “What do you think when you see someone dressed like that?” invites your daughter to analyze the realism of such appearances in her everyday life.
*Find real life heroes. Help your daughter find role models in your family and community whose accomplishments are not based on appearance and more accurately reflect the world she lives in. Emphasize that success comes in all shapes and sizes.