“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “It’s not what you look like but who you are” are sayings that each of us has heard many times in our lives. We’ve said them to our children when they speak of feeling unattractive. Yet, few people take the sayings to heart.
Research shows that children of a very young age worry about their weight and looks. An online poll conducted by Harris Interactive in January 2001 found that 17 percent of girls ages eight and nine, and about one-third of girls ages 10 to 12 perceived themselves as overweight. While the percentages are substantially less, 16 percent of eight-and-nine-year-old boys, and one-fifth of 10 to 12 year old boys believed that they were overweight. The percentages for both genders increase during adolescence.
Some young children tend to be concerned about their weight and looks in addition to what they wear and how their clothes fit. Girls, particularly, want to dress in ways sophisticated for their years. Some parents and teachers believe that this obsession with weight and looks is a result of the influence that television and magazines have on children’s perceptions of themselves. They look at young women like Britney Spears with their thin, flat tummies and choose them for role models.
There have been studies done in which people are shown pictures of men and women considered either attractive or unattractive by the standards of our society. Respondents have consistently judged the attractive people as being kinder, more moral, more intelligent, and more successful than those that are unattractive. As hard as teachers try to be objective, they tend to favor children who are more attractive too.
What can parents do to assist their children in accepting themselves the way that they are and in not judging others by looks alone? This is not easy in a society that places high value on youth and beauty. Yet, experts agree on a few tips that can help.
Watch what you say about both yourself and others. Derogatory comments about body shapes and looks teach your children that it’s okay to judge themselves and others harshly.
Provide healthy meals for your family and yourself. Exercise regularly. Avoid binge dieting. If you do diet, avoid talking about it with your children. Instead, talk about healthy food choices that you make. For example, you might say, “I’m not eating an ice cream cone this afternoon because I want to eat dessert this evening.” Or, “I like to eat salad when we go out to dinner instead of French fries because I think vegetables are healthier.” Statements like these avoid the message of dieting and provide your children with a small lesson in nutrition as well as allow you to be a role model for healthy eating.
Everyone likes to be heard when they talk about concerns that they have. If your children are worried about their looks, it does not help them when you say, “Oh, but you are beautiful (or handsome) to me.” Or, “You’re too young to worry about how you look. You look fine.” Instead, listen to their concerns and respond from an understanding point of view. You might say, “I’ve felt ugly sometimes, too. It doesn’t feel good. I wonder what you might like to do to help yourself.” Then brainstorm ideas like making different food choices or exercising or improving grooming habits. Even a cosmetic change like a different haircut can help children feel better about their looks.
While this may seem silly to some, raising children’s awareness of the beauty in variety assists them in accepting their own uniqueness. Talk about nature and how looking at a garden that has different colors and shapes of flowers is more interesting than looking at a garden with only one type of foliage. Look at pictures with people of diverse ethnicity and talk about how colorful they are. Look at your child’s class picture and discuss something of interest in each child such as hair color or differences in smiles. Raise your own awareness of the value of uniqueness.
Talk to your children about the people that you care for and what it is that you love about them. Perhaps you have a friend who is overweight or physically disabled, or who has bodily scars from an accident. Tell the children what qualities these friends have that make you want to be with them. Encourage your children to look for qualities in others they know that make them desirable for friendship.
These suggestions will not help children change their body image overnight. In your parenting, if you begin to wean yourself from statements that focus on the body image to statements that reflect specific traits and inner qualifies, you will help them begin to see themselves as more than their looks. Instead of telling your daughter how beautiful she is, tell her that you like how her eyes sparkle because to you that indicates she is feeling happy. Tell your son that you like the way he was kind to his younger brother. Focus on your children’s inner strengths like courage and wise decision-making. When children begin to recognize and honor admirable qualities they possess, they begin to be less concerned with wanting to look like the latest teen idol.