Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Combating the Thin Ideal

As reported on Pigtail Pals, this week is National Eating Disorder Awareness week. Melissa Wardy’s posts got me thinking about the Thin Ideal and Muscular Ideal and how we can protect our children from accepting these unrealistic and unhealthy standards. So, here’s a list of practical strategies for combating these ideals:

TALK OPENLY

Sometimes when we don’t like something, we just hope that our kids won’t notice it.   Truth is, that’s probably not realistic. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, it’s a lot more effective to be proactive. So, when you notice your child engaging with media or a product that endorses one of the ideals, point it out and talk with them about it. For example, if they’re playing with a Barbie doll or watching a Barbie movie, you might say, “What do you think of how Barbie looks? Is that how real people look?” My oldest daughter pointed this out to me herself when she was younger, saying “Mommy, I’ve never seen anyone with a waist that small.” When those moments happen, seize them, and begin an ongoing conversation with your child about realistic body shapes.

POINT OUT REALITY

In the real world, there are all different types of healthy body shapes. I have a friend who is a fitness instructor, and she I talked one day about how all of the instructors are healthy and strong, and yet their body shapes are very different. Some are very thin, while others are more muscular or curvy, some are tall and other shorter. Use real people in your world to show your child different healthy body types. You want your message to be about health, not perfection or idealization. When children see that all different shapes and size of bodies can be strong and healthy, then they are better able to reject the Ideals.

CUT OUT THE FAT TALK

Yes, this part may be hard for some adults. In order to promote healthy body images for the children in your life, you must cut out your own fat talk. If you feel that you’re not healthy, frame any conversations about this in terms of gaining strength and health. When my girls ask me why I go to the gym, I tell them that to have the energy to take care of them, I need to be healthy and strong. I may not be in the best shape, but I’m working on being healthy, and that’s the message that we need to be sharing with our child if we talk about changing our own shape.

ADDRESS HEALTH ISSUES

Some of you may have children who are at an unhealthy weight, either needing to gain or lose weight. This report in Health News indicates that recent studies have found up to 19% of children in the USA to be obese, while The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that eating disorders are on the rise. Again, conversations with your child around their health are very important, and focusing on strength and the ability to live healthy lives is the best way to begin the conversation. These conversations are uncomfortable, but the more that you can help your child understand that these issues aren’t shameful or taboo, the more you’ll open up the door to help them move forward. Eating disorders and obesity threaten your child’s health, so don’t be afraid to address them, no matter how difficult it is, and get professionals involved if you need to do so. Letting your child know that you’re with them on this journey and that you will support them as they strive for health is vital.

BUILD COMMUNITY

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to provide your child and yourself with a community that will support healthy living. Talk with other parents and find those who will provide a healthy message. If you see your child becoming a member of a group that is actively pursuing the Thin or Muscular Ideal in an unhealthy way, step in. It isn’t easy to separate our children from unhealthy peers, but sometimes it is necessary for their well-being. Provide them with other connections through interest groups, do fun things as a family, and so forth in order to give them other ways to connect with more positive groups.

The Thin and Muscular Ideals are unhealthy. It’s important for all of us to actively combat them and to provide the children in our lives with positive, healthy, and realistic responses.

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