Watch what you say…kids and body image

The swimmer
The swimmer

A couple of weeks ago my eldest son won his school age swimming race, and being the very proud parent I of course had my iPhone camera in full swing.  Later I showed him the photos I’d taken and he immediately, and with genuine disapppointment said ‘Oh, I look fat’.  Now, I’m pretty sure he’s not fat, and to try and reassure him of this, I have in fact taken him to the paediatric nurse at the hospital and had his height and weight measured and they were both on the same percentile curve, which she explained was exactly what was needed for a healthy body.  But he doesn’t believe us.

These ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I need to go on a diet’ comments have been cropping up regularly for the past few months and it got me thinking, where did he get this idea from? and how can I make him realise that he’s a normal healthy 9 year old boy?

Over the past year I’ve been losing weight, very slowly, so of course there have been comments I’ve made on how I look, why I’m exercising more than normal, what I eat, and especially when I eat things I perhaps shouldn’t.  Over the past few months my mother has lost a LOT of weight and the difference in her body shape  is dramatic.  She has been discreet and far less vocal about it, but nonetheless the two boys have noticed that Granny eats different meals.

Having become aware of careless talk about what’s healthy, fat, and loosing weight I started to listen to conversations in the extended family, particularly around meal times, and there again it is – comments about how much they eat, what they eat, what it will do to them.  When I delicately suggested that this was happening, the well-meaning grandparents were oblivious and said ‘But we’ve never told them they’re fat’ – missing the point completely.

I read an article that made the rounds on Facebook called  How to talk to your daughter about her body and then read another quite interesting one contradicting it.  Read them and see what you think.  I also read an article on Huffington Post about eating disorders and boys, and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (US) say the hidden count could be 30% of people with eating disorders are males.  Many boys start out wanting to achieve physical perfection and then spiral down into full blown eating disorders.

In just a few minutes a day...
In just a few minutes a day…

This started to ring true to me as over the summer holidays more tv time was had and when the kids programmes run out on free view channels, (Sky bless them, has 24 hour kids programmes without inappropriate advertising) informercials follow, and what do they advertise? Well apart from skin cream, exercise machines. And who advertises them? Rippled male chests and promises of just a few minutes a day and you can look like this.  Who advertises underwear on the billboards and magazines? More rippled male chests.  So, without me realising, my son has been subjected to an unrealistic image of what the male body ‘should’ look like.  He just doesn’t seem to realise that this is physically impossible for a child his age, and realistically unreasonable for anyone who has a social life and a job.

So, the combination of my unknowing comments about my own weightless, extended families well meaning comments on healthy eating, and images of rippled male chests has all contributed to my child genuinely thinking he is fat, at 9 years old.

My plan? It’s two-fold, firstly beginning with me.  I’ll explain; Marie Claire are fronting a campaign called #whywait, after research showed that the average Australian woman only likes her body at the age of 45 – that’s ten more years of self-dissatisfaction for me…  Stephanie Rumble, mum-from-school and fashion stylist challenged her Facebook followers (March 10th post) to list the things they LIKE about their appearance and to share them either online (I did!) or with their nearest and dearest.  I thought this was a great idea and well suited to my problem so over breakfast I talked about it with the boys and told them what I liked best about my body.  The aim is to get them thinking about their bodies positively, by modelling it myself.

Now we’re into term time and the rippled chests selling exercise machines are no longer part of our lives (we have a no screen rule on weekdays), so I’ve reduced that influence, and now that he’s surrounded by other 9 and 10 year olds kids, there’s  more ‘normal’ around him.  The rest is up to me – I need to think about what I say and how I say things about my body, and what we eat and I’m gently trying to encourage the boys’ extended family to be mindful that the things they say can be interpreted by small boys differently from how they’re intended.

Next time you want to say ‘Gee my bum looks big in this’ perhaps don’t, or next time you hear a well meaning grandparent say ‘my goodness you’ve eaten a lot, be careful you don’t get fat’, perhaps suggest that the child’s portion size be put on the plate for them, rather than letting the child’s eyes dictate how much their stomach will eat.  Oh, and in case you didn’t know – infomercials aren’t for kids!

Having been shocked at how easily my son has developed a warped sense of self, I’m now trying to put it back to rights.

I’d love to hear of any similar experiences, or advice?

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