My Body, Myself

Mama to MamaFrom the moment our babies notice their tiny fingers flailing in front of their faces they get nothing but joy from their delicious little bodies. First, they stare. Then before you know it they manage to get their toes into their mouths and are sucking away. And a minute later they toddle in front of a mirror and are COMPLETELY mesmerized. The fact that our little offspring adore every inch of their flesh is a beautiful miracle — if only it could last.

My middle son who shall remain nameless (for this post, at least) was a great example. From the time he could walk until he was about 6 I couldn’t get him to wear clothes. Now don’t get me wrong: given my devotion to boundaries and appropriate kid behavior I’d insist that he get dressed for preschool or when we went out into the world, but as soon as we got back into the house he’d strip naked. His older brother was horrified, but M didn’t care. Clothing was a burden he had little patience for and he shed it the moment he had the chance. He reveled in his nakedness the way grown men do when they loosen their tie and fall onto the couch, remote control in hand.

Fast forward a matter of months and all of a sudden M was hiding behind closed doors as though none of us had seen him in the buff before. He was awkward and uncomfortable and screamed bloody murder if I even tried to enter the bathroom to witness the occasional shower. What happened?? Yes, I know all about the developmental stages and how body awareness accompanies a sense of modesty and shyness, but I think it’s more than that.

Then consider the increasing number of young girls who are concerned about their weight; not about their health or good nutrition, but about weight. Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health surveyed 234 Girl Scouts and found that nearly 30 percent had tried to lose weight.

The girls were approximately 10 years old. Most reported trying healthy methods to lose weight, like increasing their levels of exercise and decreasing their consumption of high fat foods, but 12 girls, or about 5%, said they took diet pills, purged or used laxatives to drop weight. So it’s no wonder studies show more girls are afraid of gaining weight than of nuclear war, cancer or losing a parent.

Whether raising sons or daughters, today’s parents must be vigilant about the messages kids receive about what is and isn’t beautiful. Maureen Kelley, director of education and training for Planned Parenthood, offers these tips for raising kids to have a healthy body image.

* Teach your kids that their body shape and weight are just one part of who they are.

* Share your thoughts and ask your kids’ opinions about how bodies are depicted in the media. Engage kids in dialog with questions like, “Does that look real?” “Do a lot of people really look like that?”

* Set a good example. Putting down your own body in front of your kids sends a clear message that it’s OK not to like yourself.

* Teach your kids about health, weight, nutrition and exercise, keeping the focus on health and not societal expectations. Let your kids know that appearance alone is not an indicator of health. People with big bodies may be healthy, and people with thin bodies may not.

* Look around. What kinds of magazines do your have in your home? How many diet products do you purchase? Have you had ‘work done’?

* Teach your child critical thinking skills to deal with society’s obsession with appearance. Use TV commercials as a teachable moment.

* Teach your kids about injustice. Tell them that many people suffer discrimination and prejudice, including people whose bodies don’t match the cultural ideal of beauty. Teach your kids to speak up whenever they see oppression, intolerance or prejudice.

As parents, it’s our job to teach our children that strength and beauty have little to do with the wrapping on the package.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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