It’s who we are that counts
Today’s children and young people face some tough challenges as they grow up. With girls bombarded with media images and surrounded by non-stop social networking, one of the biggest issues that parents face is that of helping their child to develop a positive body image. It’s estimated that about half of all girls are negative about their appearance, while a staggering two-thirds of secondary school pupils started this new school year worried about their body shape, their weight or their skin.
Fears increase throughout secondary school, reaching a peak around GCSE year. Statistics also show that appearance is by far the commonest reason that pupils give for being bullied. In our highly sexualised, celebrity-adoring culture, girls are under pressure to look great and feel good. But while we all want this for our children, it’s important that they feel good about the people they really are, rather than striving to conform to airbrushed pseudo-realities.
So what can parents do? It’s impossible, in a digital age, to prevent children being influenced by contemporary culture. So instead of banning screen time or simply telling your child that you don’t want her to conform, take an active approach. Be aware of your child’s perceptions – one research project showed that 20 per cent of 8 year olds believe everything they see on social media to be true. In 2011 Reg Bailey, the then CEO of Mothers’ Union, led a six month review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood – you can find out more by reading the report Letting Children be Children. Check out MediaSmart, which has plenty of advice for parents on the issue of body image and advertising.
Talk about how media images are created and whether what we see is real. Teach your child to photoshop – an understanding of how image can be manipulated may help them to critique what they see more effectively. Try to understand your child’s perceptions of celebrity and talk about why they want to emulate it. Discuss the diversity of the world they see around them and talk about differences in age, skin colour and body shape – there are many definitions of beauty. Try to find examples of advertising that thoughtfully portray disability or old age.
Be aware of the extent to which porn, sexting and revenge porn are part of a youth culture that commodifies sex: discuss with your children the fact that porn is about fantasy sex. Talk about how women are objectified and help them to understand that, in the context of an exclusive loving relationship, sex is a beautiful gift to be shared, not a commodity to be traded.
A school head recently wrote to all her pupils’ mothers asking them take care in expressing their own body image, because girls will absorb it into their thinking. A mother who is constantly dieting, or who spends disproportionate amounts of time pursuing a particular body shape or appearance, is telling her daughter that image matters above all else. She’s also telling her son that women are only desirable as adornments. Daughters learn to relate to men through their fathers, so dads, be careful what messages you’re sending your daughters. Think about how you respond to images of thin or sexy women in the media, because your response is an implicit message to your daughter about what constitutes attractive womanhood.
Sport is often seen as an answer, but even here, there are inherent dangers. Sports such as dance and gymnastics come with body image attached, so if you are concerned, encourage your daughter to choose a sport in which performance is only about skill and fitness, not appearance. Keep a firm eye on the messages about eating and good health that sports coaches are delivering. Becoming addicted to diet and exercise to try and lose weight is just as dangerous as other forms of self-abuse.
Finally, help your child to understand the difference between image (how others perceive us) and identity (who we are). Value who they are above all else, because it’s who we are that really counts.
Gill Robins – Christians in Education