Last summer, we spent a warm evening with friends. Over dinner, we discussed advertising, branding and materialism, and how it affected our children's self-esteem and body image. Our friends' 11-year-old daughter Charlie was listening. She was all too familiar with these concepts.
"It's really awful," she said of advertising and fashion shoots in "tween" magazines. "You look at them and think, 'She's so pretty. If only I had those jeans, those sunglasses, that hair, that dog… Maybe then I wouldn't be left sitting on my own at lunchtime'." While Charlie is particularly cluey, we were surprised at her awareness of how these images keyed into her confidence, self-esteem and need to belong.
Charlie then told us that the primary school photographers who visited her school would, if asked, "touch up" kids' photos, removing birthmarks or pimples from the final image. "It's just like the magazines," Charlie explained. "But how do they think that makes us feel? Aren't kids good enough just as we are?"
I had fought my own painful battles with bad body image and bulimia nervosa for over 15 years. I'd spent my teenage years and young adulthood comparing myself against images and finding myself lacking. Charlie's heartfelt comments reminded me that nothing much had changed, but that something must.
We don't want to create barrier to prevent commercial messages or popular culture from reaching our kids, because that's not possible. I'm not sure that even if it were possible it would be desirable. Many kids and adults enjoy popular culture very much and it provides some fantastic moments to share with our kids. Neither, on the other hand, should advertisers be allowed to say whatever they like, leaving parents to teach kids to "just ignore it". As most parents know, it is not that simple, and advertisers have responsibilities, too.
Instead, we need to equip children with the tools to maintain healthy self-esteem in our media-saturated culture, and encourage them to talk back to messages that skew their body image, and insult their intelligence. Above all, we need to help our kids to keep their media use in balance with other parts of their lives, and encourage them to develop their unique passions and talents.
While body image is a complex issue, there are some basic things we can do to help our kids maintain a healthy perception of their bodies.
Model self-acceptance. Body image is learned, not inherited. As parents, we shape our children's body image from infancy. We can model self-acceptance and love for our own bodies, regardless of our size or shape. If we model healthy self-esteem and eating patterns, healthy physical activity and realistic expectations of our own bodies, our kids are more likely to develop them, too.
Limit exposure to commercial media. Girls as young as six experience the desire to be thinner, so exercise careful judgement about the kind of media they are exposed to. Encourage limited and selective media use for older kids. Try to present kids with healthier media options, and encourage them to always talk about what they see.
Start teaching media literacy early. Young kids are able to learn useful ways of thinking about advertising, and encouraged to pick out commercials from programs. Older kids can be encouraged to decode media messages by asking questions like, who created it? Why did they create it? What do you feel about it, and where can you voice your opinions?
Help them develop perspective and realistic expectations about their own bodies and appearance. Remind them that appearance is only a very small part of who we are, and that because our appearance is very much determined by genes, there's not much we can really change. However, we can cherish and nurture the bodies we do have.
Make sure they feel connected. We can provide our kids with a strong sense of connectedness in their families and communities, to build solid foundations of self-esteem, meaning and belonging. Surround kids with positive, realistic role models whose achievements are not related to their appearance.
Weight-related teasing damages kids — their self-esteem, body image and physical health. Insist that schools consider it as seriously as bullying. Schools can help kids challenge the notion of the "perfect body", and can help kids celebrate diversity in body shapes, sizes and abilities.
While they are not the whole story, media images are a fundamental piece of the body image puzzle. We need to tell our kids often that when we're faced with media images of perfection, we can start to feel bad about ourselves. But if that does happen, we need to take action — and understand that it's the images that are distorted, not us.
Tania Andrusiak is a freelance writer and editor living in Victoria, Australia.