Guest Blogger: Kids and Body Image

Let me introduce myself to the blog readers out there! My name is Jill (from the Boston area) and I am a semi-recent college graduate who is currently completing an AmeriCorps service year and contemplating how her life and career paths can put her on the front lines of tackling many of the issues this blog deals with. I contacted Mrs. Q after her post from May 5th where she alluded to how the troubled relationships we have with our bodies often impact the relationship we have with food. I could not agree more. As an AmeriCorps member with the YWCA, I deal daily in issues of empowerment and body image, so I’d like to take the time in this post to address some issues of life, pop culture and the food/body image intersection.

In an episode of FOX’s hit teen dramedy “Glee” two weeks ago, the series’ blonde bombshell- turned-teen mom got right to the heart of American teens’ troubled relationship with food. 
“I was scared, hating myself for eating a cookie. But I got over it. When you start eating for somebody else, so that they can grow and be healthy, your relationship to food changes. What I realized is that if I’m so willing to eat right to take care of this baby, why am I not willing to do it for myself?”
In Quinn’s statement we can see the desire for “ideal beauty” outweighs her concerns for her own personal nutrition. Many experts wish they could call her the minority, but unfortunately, lots of teens feel this way. Without burdening you readers with statistics, I’ll provide two reputable examples of trends being seen:
In a Pew Research Study from 2006 (the most recent year available) 37% of 18-29 year olds worry about their weight some or all of the time.
 Research statistics posted on the National Eating Disorder Information Center website cite that 37% of girls in grade 9 and 40% of girls in grade 10 perceived themselves as too fat. Even among students of normal weight (based on BMI), 19% believed they were too fat and 12% reported trying to lose weight. 
So often, it’s not just an issue of access to healthy foods or knowledge of what is healthy- it’s about the very essence of food as ‘friend’ not ‘enemy’ and eating as an activity worthy of pride– not shame or danger. There are so many fingers that get pointed in this discussion- pointed at the media, celebrity and the effects of peer pressure. They’re valid complaints and create a vast landscape for discussion, but I’d like to focus on some thoughts and strategies we can use in the home to create positive relationships with food.
Body as beautiful In all the picking, complaining and insulting we do on a daily basis, the body surely takes the brunt! It was Mrs. Q’s comment on her mom and the way food, bodies and dieting were discussed in her childhood home that really got me going on this. This past week, our YWCA chapter hosted a community discussion on body image and there was an educator present who made a great point. There is a time in the life of a child when Mommy and Daddy are perfect and beautiful. Why wreck that? By insulting our ‘perfect selves’ we send the message that those little bodies, those pieces of us, are imperfect, too. The bottom line– Think before you speak. Don’t insult your body. Don’t teach your children that a body is something to be managed, controlled, monitored, starved or anything other than loved. 
Use Nature as a guide Organisms need nourishment! Bees, flowers, moose, salmon or children—we all need nutrients to grow healthy and strong. I think the natural world provides amazing opportunity to raise young people in the philosophy of natural, healthy bodies. Growing up, I raised horses and was part of a 4H club. Not everyone can do this, but I have always credited my connection to animals and agriculture as a reason for my positive self body image. If my horse needs nutrients for a glossy coat and an appropriately fleshy barrel- so do I! If all animals go through awkward and gangly stages of development- then I guess I do too!
The teachable moment Remember all that finger pointing I was talking about? Go ahead and point the finger, but talk about why! Kids want to talk about this. They want to talk about the impossibly beautiful models they see on TV, the magazines in the checkout line, the kids who harass them in school, the way they feel about food and their bodies. I’ve never run a workshop on this topic that didn’t have teens running at the mouth, or the educators for that matter! Never miss an opportunity to talk – and listen—your kids (and friends) will remember it. 
The Right Stuff at the Right Time Of course, how can we be proud of the way we nourish our bodies if we are not proud of the food that does the nourishing? It’s been touched on in this blog and on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution—we need quality food and we need to teach kids about what makes it valuable. From a young age, food should be exciting and precious! The right food does the right job, which is to make us all beautiful, healthy and strong. That’s a lesson we can teach at home and at school- using our kids as the proof!
I hope that while we are creating a culture of local food, slow food, green food and healthy food- we can also create a culture of healthy relationships to food. One day, I hope that what we put in our bodies becomes a point of pride. Can you imagine a 5 year old pointing at their muscles and saying “the spinach I ate for lunch grew these!”? If young people start cherishing their bodies, and by extension how they nourish them, we’ll all be better off!
To close, I’d like to recommend the documentary film called “America The Beautiful”- which addresses whether or not America is ‘beauty obsessed’ and the means we take to get there. It’s a show-stopper that I often show to high school age students and educators alike!
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14 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Kids and Body Image

  1. Timely post for me–My six year-old niece asked me if she was "too fat" this weekend. She's tall for her age and extremely active and fit. Apparently, kids at school have been teasing her. It's hard to know the exact words to say to clear up all confusion and take away the pain caused by her peers. Thanks for the post.

  2. My own road to trying to better my eating patterns and learning what I should eat also began with my pets, although pet rats, not horses. They have surprisingly similar nutrition requirements to humans. Much as a mother might learn what her baby needs and learns that what's good for baby is good for herself, I couldn't keep on denying the overflowing bowl of veggies and fruits and whole grains and nuts that I gave my rats is what I should eat as well. It's pretty powerful.

    Something else I learned about nature is the beauty in variation and non-perfection. How visually appealing would a forest be if it was filled with completely identical trees? What if every single cloud looked the same? I think my love for nature helped me not feel negatively about my body. So what if I don't look like the models or movie stars. I know I am strong and there are amazing things I can do with my body.

  3. So amazingly well said! Wish my family had read this post when I was a child. I grew up watching my mom continually diet (diet shakes, cabbage soup, Jenny Craig, etc) and hearing my naturally thin dad and brothers "tease" me about my weight. There were even times when my dad would do sit ups with me before dinner…while my brothers sampled the dessert! I can't change the past, but I can work to change the future for me and my children. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this!

  4. I just saw that Idaho has just announced grants to provide fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks (not at lunch or breakfast time) to several (mostly elementary) schools. I gather from the article the program is funded through the USDA.

    What an awesome idea! It will introduce healthier eating habits among the children, opening up the idea that snacks don't have to be hard, salty, or processed, and they may feel more like their schools care about them and their health. Way to go!!!

  5. As a mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 5, I strive very hard to create healthy body images. I NEVER say anything negative about my appearance…never. Even when told I had a fat butt (which was said to be funny not cruel) I responded with, "I love my butt. It is just the way it should be." Second point: we don't have a t.v. No negative body images in my house. I also don't have magazines at home. Looking at those is just asking to feel negatively about your own body. When we try on clothes, I ask the girls if they feel good about themselves in that outfit of if they feel like their true selves. I don't say, "You look so beautiful." It is about how they feel. Subtle difference yes, but a powerful one (or at least I'm hoping!). Finally, we focus on nutrition. The food we eat makes us strong. Our bodies do amazing things and we need to eat our vegetables and drink water to have energy to play and grow. They always show me how strong they are or how much bigger they got after eating a really healthy dinner. Right now, it is an experiment, but I'm hoping all of this will negate the onslaught of body-consciousness that will happen in their early teens. I wish them luck and incredible self-awareness and self-confidence!

  6. Off topic, but I'm a fellow AmeriCorps member serving with the Girl Scouts. I love your enthusiasm!

  7. This is a good post, in enforces what I believe should be a focus in teaching kids about nutrition and health. I believe everyone should be okay with how they look, and that what is on the outside is not the focus. We want to focus on overall HEALTH. physical looks are temporary. That gangly teenager can turn into a graceful adult, that turns into a bent-backed senior citizen. But, what counts is how we treat that body over time. If we eat vegetables and fruits and whole grains over processed sugars, "white" grains, and fatty fake foods we turn out healthier. If we eat healthy, the rest takes care of itself.
    I liked the passage about 4h and the involvement in agriculture and horses. I learned alot about myself and my paths when I started working with horses. In caring for my horses I began to care for myself. I am now volunteering at an animal shelter and in caring for those animals I am learning to care for things other than myself, too. Maybe it has something to do with responsibility, and knowing what needs to be done to have a correct relationship with something that makes it easier to reconcile the self with the world. I don't know.

  8. Also off topic, but I'm an americorps in Anchorage working with teenagers! Good to see there's others out there.

    I'm in my early 20s and don't have plans to have my own children any time soon (if ever) but I try to watch what I say around my younger cousins and any other children I'm around regarding body image. I've come to terms with my body's flaws and accepted and love my body now, but hated it through my teens. Partially it was media, partially it was comments from family etc. I remember my aunt saying my swimsuit that I had when I was 12 made me look "hippy." Of course, she's my mother's sister and my mother's family are all 5'9ish and naturally slender. I took after my father's side, that's all shorter and naturally more "thick" like many Italians and hated that my older sister and brother got the tall, slender genes.
    I've reconciled now though. I'm not tall or thin really, but I try to eat fruits/veggies and walk as often as possible. It makes me feel better about myself, which is better imo than fitting into a size 2 jeans.

  9. Stephanie…Love your comment and the positive example you are setting for your kids. I don't have my own kids yet, but I also try to be careful around the ones I teach and the ones I'm related to. I cringe when my relatives talk about how "pretty" my niece is. Yes she is lucky to be naturally pretty, but I'm more likely to compliment her on how hard she tried, or how well she behaved-the things she has some control over.

    As a teacher I've also learned to be careful on calling somebody good or bad. Their action/choice was good or bad, not them…sorry to get off topic there.

  10. I grew up with three sisters and a mother who tried to promote healthy body images. We talked about these issues a lot and for a while we didn't have any full-length mirrors in the house. Looking back, I have to say I'm a bit puzzled. I have a low BMI and can get very concerned about my weight but one or two of my sisters are overweight.

    I'm not exactly sure what was/is different between me and my sisters to cause different, but I suspect that there needs to be a balance of self-love/respect and the desire for self-improvement in order to stick to a healthy weight. And of course, that's "healthy" as determined by medical proof rather than unrealistic expectations – a difficult thing to figure out sometimes.

  11. This is a really great post and I completely agree. But then there are the thousands of kids who go the other way with not caring about the bodies at all – the 12 year olds who are 100 pounds over weight, the little kids who can't button their top buttons on their pants, etc. I see them all the time and I wonder what their parents are feeding them/teaching them?

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