Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Objectification: Body Image and Young Children

Body Image Issues: 6-Year-Old Girl Worries She Is Fat – ABC News.

In the article linked above, a six-year-old girl talks about needing to lose weight and a group of young girls criticize other girls their age about weight issues.

As we explore the idea of objectification, one of the main issues that comes up is that of consistently policing ones appearance. Most of us probably think of this beginning to occur when a girl hits the tween or teen years. Adolescence and the body changes that occur during that period often lead to acute awareness of one’s body and appearance. But the article mentioned above, along with some recent research conducted with young girls, indicates that girls today are beginning to be aware of their bodies and how they do or do not conform to the thin ideal at a younger age. In the post Fear of Fat and the Preschool Girl, I shared an article that demonstrates that preschool girls were already beginning to internalize the idea that thinness was a very important component of goodness for females. Not only that, but these little girls were also judging other girls based on the thin ideal, and criticized and didn’t want to be friends with those who were not thin.

This is distressing to most of us who have or work with young children. We want to find ways to help our child navigate the images and ideals that they’re being presented with and learn not to judge themselves or others simply based on appearance. We want them to see their value as arising from more than the way they appear to others.

1. Talk with your child:

When you see examples of females being presented as primarily valuable for their appearance or of goodness equated with thinness, 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?” or if they consistently praise others for their appearance, make a point to ask what else they like about that person. Follow this line of conversation to provide your child with a challenge the idea that appearance is all important.

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

Is your child receiving a lot of messages about the importance of how they look? 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. You can guide your children in developing the ability to critique media messages by doing so yourself. Then prompt them to do so as well. For example, watch a TV show with your child and ask questions and make comments about the choices the characters make, how they look, etc. Don’t 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 the idea that how a female looks is the most important thing about her, it is very important to have a community of support that also promotes other characteristics as valuable. Find other parents, families, and groups that will support your child as they reject and challenge unhealthy ideas. For example, if you want to fight the idea that a female’s most important characteristic is her appearance, then a sports team, singing group, drama club, or scouting group might be good options to providing opportunities to focus on other aspects of oneself.

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

As my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Harriger, mentioned to me when we talked about this, 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 launch a discussion with kids. 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 strong arms or legs, while another has a lot of power in general can give you a natural springboard for this kind of conversation. Instead of talking about “fat” or “thin,” talk about strength, healthy, how people use their bodies to do things they enjoy, and so forth.

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5 comments on “Objectification: Body Image and Young Children

  1. Adrienne Porter Hodges
    July 2, 2011

    I appreciate the message in your writing, but I take issue with your use of the word “female.” “Female” is a descriptor, not a noun, and it shouldn’t be used alone to describe a woman or a girl. This usage is something I’ve only seen and heard as a slang term for a woman, and I don’t think it’s appropriate in an article encouraging feminist values. After all, we want to use positive language to teach our children that they are more than the sum of their parts, not define them by their gender.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 4, 2011

      That is the language that is used in the field of psychology, which is my field, as a descriptor in research and practice.

  2. JanaC2
    July 15, 2011

    I appreciate the depth of knowledge presented on your site. As a survivor of an eating disorder, I am very interested in helping my daughter define herself by something other than the scale or the mirror. I linked this post on my blog – I hope others will visit your site and learn more!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 16, 2011

      Thanks, Jana! It’s so important for us to find a community of support as we raise our children. I hope this site can provide you with good information in helping your daughter build a healthy self-esteem. And kuddos to you for fighting against an eating disorder! I know it is very difficult, and your resilience will help you support your daughter and other children as they develop. Glad to have you here!

  3. jason mark
    July 25, 2011

    Why girls only? We have a neighbor who’s a boy who gets teased for being fat at school quite a bit. He’s what I’d call stocky, not fat.

    Their approach is to tell him he’s just the right size, and ask anyone in the neighborhood to not talk about it.

    The reality is he should be eating better. When he was young he had a stomach problem and his parents had to bug him to eat. Now they do it out of habit. It doesn’t help that both of his parents are about 20lbs overweight, and it effects their energy level, as well as the sorts of interactions they can have with their kids, and without a doubt is effecting their lifespan.

    Your article seems to focus on making girls feel OK with being overweight and avoiding Media influence… but what about the very real problem of an overweight population? I think your article would be stronger if the first two points you brought up are: Eat well, and exercise. That’s something the elementary schools in our district to. They have public awards for kids who eat their veggies and exercise every day… and they pit classrooms against each other.
    My kids have learned from it…

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