Hey, want to be bummed out for the rest of the day? Oh come on, you know you do. Here it is: By age 10, 80% of American girls have been on a diet. Think you're in the clear because you only have sons? Allow me, aka The Ruiner, to pop your little bubble of relief. While women and girls are disproportionately affected by media and societal pressure to conform to ridiculous, basically impossible beauty standards, our sons are not somehow sitting on the sidelines immune. From anorexia nervosa to binge eating and bulimia, eating disorders affect approximately 10 million men and boys, or about 1/3 of all sufferers.
So what are we going to do? In my more fed-up, desperate, and reactionary moments, I'm like, "That movie The Village sounds like a really awesome idea right now. Do you think there's a YouTube tutorial on building your own village and convincing your children it's the 1800s? Could I Google how to do that?" (I'd say "spoilers," but it's been almost 12 years: if you haven't seen it yet that's just not my fault. Keep up, guys.) Look, it's easy to feel completely overwhelmed and preemptively defeated by all the body image crap out there; truly, it is a mighty foe. But listen, let's take a minute to feel our feelings of rage, sadness, dejection, and madness on this one for a bit, and then turn all that angry lamentation for a world gone insane to a righteous anger. Let this fuel a renewed commitment to raising body positive children.
How? So glad you asked.
"Oh, I think I'll be good today and have a salad instead of a burger."
"Mmm! This cookie is sinful! I'll be naughty and have one more."
The idea of "good" food and "bad food" somehow being a moral reflection of the person eating them is pervasive and creepy. Food is food. Unless you're consuming, like, condor egg omelettes and baby panda sliders; in that case, yeah, OK, it's a moral reflection of you, you monster.
Normally, the "bad" foods are the ones with high fat/sugar/calorie counts and the "good" foods are low calorie/fat/sugar/sodium. But when we look at food so one dimensionally, merely as the building blocks (or stumbling blocks) of an idealized form, we're missing out on all the other things food is. Delicious, for example. Also culturally important, family tradition, religiously significant, and/or living history. By all means, honor your body by filling it with foods filled with vitamins and minerals. Be conscientious of the fact that while Nutella is good (on so many levels), a jar a night may not be a great way to honor yourself. But let's not take a strictly utilitarian approach to food, which can often sustain more than just our bodies.
No derogatory, dehumanizing, or belittling language regarding any body will be tolerated. Any body that lets you do the things that make you happy is a good body. We don't let our children talk that way about themselves or others, at least not in our presence. And we don't speak that way about ourselves or others, at least not in their presence. The former in particular is harder than it sounds, sometimes. Many people do not realize how much they put themselves down until they make a concerted effort not to.
My children are frequently referred to as "my pretty boy" and "my pretty girl." There's nothing wrong with calling your kids pretty. I'm 33 and I still get all giddy if I'm called pretty. But "pretty" can't be the only quality in our children we praise or value. It shouldn't even be the only appearance-based compliment we give them. So in addition to (of course) extolling your children's character, intelligence, and good deeds, feel free to praise their child's strength, speed, or athletic abilities. Tell them how proud you are of their ability to perform particular chores or tasks. Let them know you admire their sense of style and the creativity they've put into their outfit choices. Bodies do so many amazing things aside from being nice-looking. We should be celebrating those accomplishments and abilities as well.
Since less nutritionally useful foods should not be eaten as frequently as healthy foods (or, as we call them in my house "foods that help us grow up big and strong"), it's easy to see them as treating them as treats. And since healthy foods help us grow big and strong, it's easy to understand the logic behind making our children eat every single one of them to completion on their dinner plates or no dessert. But punishing or rewarding children with food does far more harm than good by encouraging eating when you're not hungry or prizing "junk" food over others.
We know that when people say "dress for your body," what they mean is "dress in a way that I like and doesn't make me uncomfortable somehow." Eff that noise. If you're fat and want to wear a crop top, you wear that crop top. If you have broad shoulders and want to wear a strapless dress, rock it. If you're a boy and want to wear a skirt, shine on, gorgeous. There isn't a garment in the world that requires a permission slip based on body type.
Exercise is fun, or healthy, or both. But it is not something we encourage our kids to do because it will make them attractive. If, as an adult or teen or whatever, you choose to work out to achieve or maintain a certain body shape, go for it. You do you. It's your body and it can look however you want it to look. But telling a child that they need to exercise to conform to a socially agreed upon "ideal" physique is neither healthy nor fun.
And there will be a ton of it, trust. From hackneyed, sophomoric fat jokes on sitcoms to the existence plastic surgery makeover shows, to the complete lack of any sort of body diversity in the fashion and entertainment industries. When their school dress code is sexist, shaming crap? Oh. There will be blood. (Metaphorical blood, of course, because we want to continue to be positive role models here.) Parents raising body positive have zero patience for these shenanigans. None, I tell you!
Of course, all this is going to be hard, but it's worth it. Our children will be faced with countless messages throughout their lifetimes telling them they're not enough. Not pretty enough. Not muscled enough. Not thin enough. Not light enough. The list goes on and is often contradictory. If they play this game they will never, ever win. As parents, we are in the position to tell them from day one that it's fixed, that the rules are constantly changing and based on absolutely nothing, that the only way to win is not to play.
Images: Jamie Kenney; Giphy (6); Tumblr