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Kids and body image: how to change the way our children see their worth

Kinderling News & Features

One of the top three concerns of Australia’s young people is body image.

Why? And how do we change this? Blaming social media and the media at large is the easy way out. Accepting responsibility and changing the way we talk about our worth, is much harder.

I get it..

As a young girl I was bullied relentlessly at school for the way I looked, spoke, and dressed. I cried to my parents most afternoons and sat in on countless ‘mediations’ with a school principal and my bullies. After no change was made I eventually changed schools, optimistic that things would improve. They didn't. At one point one of my classmates pointed to a monster in a picutre book and announced to my whole class that said monster looked like my twin. Even the teacher giggled.

My body was the subject of the taunts and so my dwindling worth was constantly tangled up with my appearance. A tipping point came  after a particularly embarrassing incident at a primary school swimming carnival. I finished a 50-metre backstroke race without drowning. I was ecstatic. I was also laughed at by (what felt like) the entire school because my back stroke was more like reverse butterfly. My personal victory, that my little body swam a whole lap of a pool, was mocked because I did it differently.

By the time I hit high school I had given up on sport completely. I thought my body was constantly out to get me.

These taunts and schoolyard nastiness are almost entirely why I have had such a complicated relationship with my body for most of my life.

When I wasn't told I was fat or ugly or, on one occasion,  'putrid' as a classmate slapped my lunch out of my hand, I was winning public speaking competitions, being awarded prizes for creative writing, playing solos in the school band!

But none of that mattered. Because all my worth was tied up in my appearance.

While my experience was by no means the fault of my parents, could nurturing greater body appreciation help to create a child more resilient and resistant to taunts aimed at simply what a body looks like?

We might not be able to stop the bullies from taunting and poking fun at differences, but we can teach our children to see worth in more than just how someone looks.

Social media is not entirely to blame

Karen Bevan is the CEO for Girl Guides Australia. She suggests that the way we speak to our children about their bodies from a young age, is the first step to fostering body positivity. Moreover, it’s about instilling in our little ones what we think makes an ‘attractive’ person – beyond aesthetics.

While social media is an easy scapegoat, to lay blame to a platform, body image problems existed long before high speed internet and social media. 

“[Social media is] just a platform really for a broader issue that we’re dealing with every day in our homes. It’s not just about the pictures we take or the visual representation of girls and women or boys and men,” Karen says.

“It's actually about what we construct as what’s good in a person, what a good person looks like. It’s about how we talk about gender and how we construct a view of what a pretty girl is or what a handsome little boy is and though things aren’t about social media, they’re about the books we read our kids, the conversations we have at home, our own insecurities as parents…. There’s a bigger picture. Social media has amplified that…. But it actually comes back to what are we constructing as ideal humans.”

Think about this early on

It starts in the home. In the way we speak to our partners, our friends, our children, and most importantly, ourselves. Some of it is easy and some of it is much more difficult, because we all have unintentional biases in the way we speak to our children.

Imagine how wonderful and empowered we can make our children feel if we teach them the value of strength and capability and kindness.

Karen says that while body image and self-esteem issues become prevalent in pre-teens and adolescents, it’s the preschool and early years that the foundations for our child's perception of self-worth and being laid right under our noses.

“It affects girls and boys in different ways and to different degrees. It plays out differently. But when you're dealing with kids age 0-5 you're starting to see the building of the issues that will translates into those concerns later in life for both boys and girls,” she says.

Change starts with us

By no means does this mean that as caretakers parents have to keep such a tight seal on the things they say in front of their kids, we’d never speak again! It’s about being aware of how we see ourselves, and how we speak about them.

If they think we are perfect and squishy and strong, why don’t we?

The Butterfly Foundation is an Australian organisation that provides support and information around eating disorders and body image. They have some simple suggestions on how we can start to make these changes.

  • Think about how you speak about your own body. Embrace your own strengths. It managed to carry your children, and get you this far in your life. This is definitely the hardest to do, but being aware of your own attitude toward your body will help you talk to your children in a positive way about theirs?
  •  Ditch the diet talk. The Butterfly Foundation says dieting is the biggest risk factor for an eating disorder. How many times have you said your eating habits were a bit ‘naughty’? Food is fuel. Treat it that way!
  • Make choices about the media your family consumes. Australia is a beautiful and diverse country with people from so many different walks of life. So much of the media we consume tells a pretty white story. What are we missing out on by not experiencing stories different to our own?
  • Talk to you child! It may sound silly but speaking to them about how they feel about themselves is the easiest way to make sure you’re on the same level.

If we tell our children that they’re strong or clever or kind, we place importance on how capable their bodies and minds are. How strong and fast they are, how clever or funny.

Our worth isn’t born from our appearance. So, let’s try and make them realise just how priceless they are.