Recently I came across Alison Slater Tate’s article on the Huffington Post about the transmission of body image issues from mother to daughter (sounds like a disease, right? Yes it is). To quote her:
“”She looks just like you,” her admirers say, their eyes bouncing from her face to mine. I smile because this makes me so proud, but I fight the urge to wince. I agree; she does look like me”.
Why does Allison wince? Because she is worried that her daughter looking like her will lead to the same body image issues that gripped her childhood and adolescence. By passing on her genes, is she passing on her hang ups, developed mainly from schoolyard taunts?
You could say Yes and you could say No. Yes, because in our genetic material we pass on a lot of dispositions, including personality and appearance. No, because unfortunately, us parents cannot control the schoolyard taunts. But the most important answer is:
Yes, you can pass on these hang ups. But you don’t have to.
It has been shown time and time again in research, that parents are the most important influential factor in a child’s life, from the day it is born, until the day it reaches adulthood (and possibly beyond). Of course, you can’t control everything (especially once they start school and become more influenced by the media), but you can influence. Parenting, above all, mitigates outside factors such as the media, peers, teachers, and other environmental factors.
You can influence positively or negatively and this is a choice.
You just need to arm yourself with some awareness and insight.
Firstly, as parents, we need to let go of these hang ups we have of ourselves both in the present and the past. You might want to check out http://bodyimagemovement.com.au/ for more about freeing yourself.
Even if you can’t quite let go of your own issues, you can be aware of them, and how you might be overtly or inadvertently passing this onto your children.
Do any of the following statements sound familiar?
“Does my bum look big in this?”
“Oh no, I don’t eat butter, that’s fattening”
“I need to lose these love handles first!”
“You look great. How do you stay so skinny?”
“I did <insert latest fitness craze> and burnt 1500 calories!”
The problem with these statements is not always what is being said. It’s that children and adolescents aren’t developmentally equipped to process these statements and understand what they mean from a health perspective.
Let’s look at ‘how do you stay so skinny?’ The ‘takeaway’ from this for a child/adolescent is that it’s desirable, for some reason, to be skinny. You as the adult, know that it is about more than this. Many of you know that to be in the pursuit of ‘skinny’ is foolish, especially when it relates to how you look. The important thing is that maintaining a healthy weight reduces your likelihood of acquiring weight-related illnesses and disability such as diabetes, difficulty doing daily activities, sleep apnoea and heart disease. These issues are too complex for children, and many adolescents, to understand.
The pursuit of an ideal weight in a healthy way is a good thing. An excessive focus on weight for appearance’s sake is not healthy for anyone. The best thing for all concerned, is to refrain from the ‘how do you stay so skinny’ question.
Does my bum look big in this?
Instead of asking how you look, ask yourself how you feel. Do you feel confident, happy, healthy, sexy, or however else you want to feel? There you will find your answer. If you don’t feel the way you want, then do something about it – change your outfit and set a goal to improve your health!
I need to lose these love handles!
How about just saying ‘I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing that’?
This statement takes the issue away from the ‘look’, and sets a more positive example for your children and their own developing body awareness.
I don’t eat that, it’s fattening
How about ‘I’ll skip that today, I’ve indulged a bit too much lately’. This sets the example of eating in moderation, and restraint, which is so important in today’s instant gratification society.
I did <insert latest fitness craze> and burnt 1500 calories!
How about, I’ve tried this new fitness thing and I can tell I’m getting fitter! And I feel so good after I’ve done it!
The issue with counting calories (or kilojoules if you’re in 21st Century Australia) is that it implies that weight loss is the aim. In reality, we consume energy (calories/kilojoules) to fuel our bodies for daily activities, and if we consume excess energy and don’t burn it off, we will gain weight, and at some point this will become detrimental to our health.
But why does it always have to be about how much we’ve burned? It’s a useless measure unless you’ve counted your intake, which isn’t easy to do accurately. Plus, we also burn energy to digest the food we’ve just eaten! Instead of focusing on calories burned, how about how many kilometres, how hard we worked or how good we feel?
By changing the way we talk about our bodies, we are wiring our children’s brains to think differently from our image-driven society. That way, if they do inherit your disposition towards ‘love handles’, they are less worried about how the handles look, and instead focus on keeping their body well.
If we all started doing this, we would become a less image-driven society, and we’d actually be healthier – in both body and mind!
Have a great day.