Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Fighting the Fear of Fat: Addressing the Thin Ideal with Young Children

In my post Fear of Fat: Preschool Girls and the Thin Ideal, I reported on Dr. Jennifer Harriger’s study on preschool girls and the Thin Ideal. This study found that girls as young as 3-5 years of age were showing signs of adopting the belief that goodness in females was related to thinness. It’s important to remember that as children develop, their ideas and beliefs are influenced by complex interacting systems, including the family, school, peers, and more distant structures like the mass media. To read more about these systems, you can check out my post on Systems of Influence and How media impacts children. This means that children are not completely subject to the messages being sent by media. There are variables in their personal life, such as family and community, that can help them process media messages and choose a healthy response. We’ll look at some specific ways to harness these important variables in the suggestions below. I got together with Jennifer Harriger, one of the authors of the original research article, and we did some brainstorming about ways parents can fight the fear of fat in young children.

1. Talk with your child:

When you see examples of sexualization or the thin ideal, point it out and open the door for ongoing conversation. Address “fear of fat” directly when it comes up. For example, if your child calls someone fat or gets upset because someone calls him or her fat, ask them, “Is fat the worst thing that you can be? Would you rather be mean or fat?” follow this line of conversation to provide your child with a challenge to the thin ideal.

2. Monitor your child’s media and product use:

Are they receiving a lot of messages about the thin ideal or the value of sexualization? You may choose to restrict their exposure to certain shows or products, or you may choose to allow it, but only with your active participation. One of the best ways to help children develop the ability to critique media messages is to do so yourself and ask them to do so as well. So, watch a TV show with them, and talk about the choices the characters make, how they look, etc. with them. Don’t just lecture, ask your child question and listen to their perspectives while sharing yours. For example, I was watching an animated movie with one of my daughters, and I asked, “What do you think about how the main character looks?” She said, “Well, she looks funny. Real people don’t look like that.” I asked her to explain and we got to have a great conversation about the very thin waist, small feet, big head, and so forth of this animated character, and how real people couldn’t even walk if they looked like that.

3. Build Community:

In order to challenge sexualization and the thin ideal, it is imperative to have a community of support that will uphold your own values. Find other parents, families, and groups that will support your child as they reject and challenge unhealthy ideas.

4. Monitor the comments that you make about your own and others’ bodies:

When you make comments like “I feel so fat, I need to lose weight” or “look how fat he/she is,” your children are listening. They learn that fat = bad. Children model the behaviors and statements they see and hear from their parents, so set a good example. Embrace your own body. Focus on what your body does instead of what it looks like. Refrain from making comments about others’ bodies, and your children will follow suit.

5. Show your child a variety of healthy body types:

Use pictures or real life examples of strong, healthy people who have different body types to talk about health and strength with your children. Since media often only presents “thinness” as healthy, you want to take every opportunity to show your child what real health looks like. Simply starting a conversation at an athletic event pointing out how one person is really fast, another has a strong arm or leg, while another has a lot of power in general can give you a natural launching pad for this kind of conversation. Instead of talking about “fat” or “thin,” talk about strength, health, how people use their bodies to do things they enjoy, and so forth.

My daughter, Allie, is a soccer player and has a naturally muscular build. Even at the age of 8, she began to notice that her body doesn’t look like the thin ideal. She has commented on this fact, and I’ve talked with her about her strength and health. While watching a gymnastics competition on TV with her, she said, “Those girls are really strong.” She was noticing the muscular arms, shoulders, and legs of the gymnasts, and I could see the wheels turning as she began to see how her body is shaped very much like theirs.

As our kids are being inundated with the idea that goodness in females is about thinness, it’s important for parents and those who work with kids to have some tools to help them deal with it. I hope that you find these helpful. If you have other ideas on how parents, teachers, and other caring adults can help young children learn to recognize and respond critically to the thin ideal, I’d love for you to share them with us!

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3 comments on “Fighting the Fear of Fat: Addressing the Thin Ideal with Young Children

  1. Laura Kaeding
    April 5, 2011

    Well said, thank you. I hope to be able to keep my daughter from experiencing the pain of constant fat talk at home, and do my best to make her feel that she is beautiful inside and out. Thank you for these great tips and pointers, they are very helpful

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      April 5, 2011

      I’m so glad you found them helpful!

  2. whatsaysyou
    April 17, 2011

    Interesting post and great to see you addressing this issue. It is sad but true that many kids as young as 5 now have negative body image and it’s not right. It is more shocking when it is just reported that eating disorders is becoming prevalent among kids under 10.

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