I was at an event recently where we were doing icebreakers. The “light hearted” question we were all supposed to answer was “what advice would you give your 10 year old self?” The other women said things like “you can be anything you want!” and “you’ll never use algebra so don’t worry about it so much!” Everyone was smiling and laughing so when I said, completely seriously “Don’t diet. Don’t ever, ever diet” it kind of stopped the show. But it started a conversation about the ways that a sizeist world had messed us all up around our relationship with our bodies.
In my work as a speaker, writer, and blogger I’m most often talking with adults who are trying to overcome a history of body image issues and chronic dieting that often goes all the way back to childhood and is perpetuated by our current thin-obsessed culture. When I do speak to and with girls, sometimes as young as third grade, I hear about the extreme pressure to be thin and the fat shaming (both often coming from adults) that is leading to a world where 1 out of 4 children had dieted prior to turning 7, and a staggering 80% of American girls aged 10 have been on diets. Also concerning was the finding that one-third of boys and the majority of girls ages 6 to 8 wish their bodies were thinner, and where the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that hospitalizations of children younger than 12 years for eating disorders rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006. (Children UNDER 12)
One of the things that can help kids deal with this is adults who not only model healthy behavior, but who also point out what is happening and give kids some ammunition against a world where they will be encouraged to judge themselves and each other harshly, and where predatory industries see them as a target demographic.
Role modeling can be tough. Often adults who have been raised and conditioned by society to have crappy self-esteem and body image are trying to raise kids with high self-esteem and body image, and that can be very difficult to do. I think that one of the best things that we can do for the kids in our lives is to work on ourselves, starting with the way that we talk about ourselves.
Here are some things that I wish more adults had done when I was growing up:
- Stop negative body talk, all of it, right now. Start with your own body. Kids believe what we do more than what we say, so if we talk badly about our own bodies, but then tell kids who look like us that they are beautiful, they are going to see right through that. Decide that you are going to talk about things you like about your body, celebrate exactly what you look like and what your body can do. Don’t say negative things about other people’s bodies. When you watch the Oscar’s, encourage kids to focus on the performer’s accomplishments and not on how they look.
- Have books and art around that highlight and celebrate a variety of bodies – people of different sizes, shapes, colors, dis/abilities, ages, and more..http://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=10912
- Talk about health in terms of health and never in terms of weight or body size. Let kids know that bodies come in lots of sizes and all bodies are good bodies, and let them know that, while there are things that they can do to support their health, it is not a barometer of worthiness or entirely within our control.
- Make health about fun, not about restriction and punishment. Talk about what kids can DO to support their health instead of suggesting what they should restrict or not do.
- I have a talk I give to all ages called “The World is Messed Up, You’re Fine” and I think that’s an important message to give kids. Let them know that a lot of times adults, including adults we’re supposed to trust, do super messed up things, often meaning well but messed up nonetheless. When it comes to body size and health right now the world is pretty messed up -people insist that bodies are good or bad depending on what size they are and there’s a lot of prejudice, negative body talk, and bullying that happens around size. There are even some doctors who believe this, and even think that they can make guesses about how healthy someone is by what they look like. The truth is that people come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and all bodies are good bodies.
- Be honest – explain the concepts of oppression, and privilege and activism in an age-appropriate way. Yes, in our society people who look a certain way may be treated better, and if you think that’s wrong you can fight to end it. You can also talk about weight and health – explain that there are some people who may want the best for them, but they are unfortunately ill-informed about the truth about the diversity of body sizes that exist and how health works (maybe start with the story of Galileo.) You can also bridge this lesson to talk about other types of oppression – racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism et al, areas where they have privilege and how they can use that privilege to help (age-appropriate intersectionality FTW!)
- Point out the ways that the industries profit from us hating our bodies and trying to achieve some stereotype of beauty that is unattainable and arbitrary.
- Never encourage kids to diet. Nothing good comes of it. Research from the University of Minnesota found that: “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors.” Encourage kids of all sizes to appreciate their bodies and see them as amazing and worthy of care. Then work to make sure that they have the resources to take good care of
Kids are living in a world where companies will try, at every opportunity, to (as my friend CJ Legare puts it) steal their self-esteem and sell it back to them at a profit. If we can help those kids develop their self-esteem and then hang on to it when the beauty and diet industries are trying to tear it away from them, we’ll give them a fighting chance to make a real change in their own world, and in the whole world.
Ragen Chastain is an internationally recognized thought leader in the fields of self-esteem, body image, Health at Every Size, and corporate wellness. She is a sought after speaker on the college, corporate, and conference circuits who has set the stage on fire everywhere from Google Headquarters to Cal Tech to the New England/New York College Health Association. She is the author of the blog DanceswithFat.org, the book Fat: The Owner’s Manual, editor of the Praeger Anthology “The Politics of Size,” serves on the Editorial Board for Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, and frequently gives expert commentary on radio, television and in print. Ragen is a featured interviewee in the documentaries America the Beautiful 2 – The Thin Commandments, and A Stage for Size. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and their adorable dogs and is training for her first IRONMAN triathlon.
Read more, go to the Dances with Fat website.