Family Life


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Your Child’s Body Image

Can any woman ever forget her first experience with a bra?

Mine was a ‘training bra’, an elasticized contraption that was more medieval torture device than symbol of burgeoning womanhood. I remember wandering self-consciously through the school yard, racked with the pain of this foreign object pressing into my flesh. How did all the other girls and women in the world endure it? How would I survive bearing this irritating burden for the rest of my life? And why had I ever begged my mother to get me a ‘training bra’ in the first place? That was the worst part – I knew I didn’t even need one. But I thought I did, because I’d acquired an upsetting nickname from some of the Grade Seven boys – ‘D Flat’. And it wasn’t because of my musical aptitude.

Then in Grade Eight, Mom bought me a girdle! Sheer ecstasy! Imagine a knock-kneed, underdeveloped 14-year-old girl in ridiculous undergarments she didn’t need. What was my mother thinking? What kind of message was she inadvertently sending me, trying to flatten a bum and tummy that didn’t even exist and foisting elastic abominations on budding breasts?

That was 40 years ago. You’d think that old adage ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’ would have finally sunk in by now. You’d think we would have figured out that being satisfied with the reflection in the mirror is what really matters, that we would have learned to disregard the dictates of popular culture and to celebrate the singular beauty that makes each girl
and woman beautiful in her own way.

But we haven’t. Everywhere a female looks today, she learns that her body just isn’t good enough. Hair, teeth, skin, size, shape and weight – apparently everything about her needs vast improvement. And statistics show that never have more girls and young women been affected by eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

Some young women so worried about their weight that they smoke a joint in the morning before class rather than succumb to the temptation of breakfast calories; others substitute coffee and cigarettes for meals. Some binge on junk food and then work out obsessively to counteract the possibility of
gaining weight, or pop laxatives like candy. Another, whose mother put her on a diet when she was 10, constantly struggles with body image. And I’ve recently heard of a seven-year-old child who came home from school asking if she should go on a diet!

But it’s not just young girls we should be concerned about. Boys are also faced with images of lean, perfectly toned bodies that are impossible to replicate. Lynn Redenbach, a private therapist in Courtenay, BC, has just finished a research project called “What About the Boys?” for Jessie’s Hope Society, a non-profit BC organization with a focus on the prevention of eating disorders and weight disturbances. She says that about one in 10 kids with an eating disorder is male. But while girls strive to be slimmer, boys are more likely to want to be bigger and more muscular, and some may utilize unhealthy substances such as anabolic steroids, prohormones and creatine.

Why? Peer pressure is one answer. Kids are trying to emulate their seemingly well-proportioned friends. They are trying to fit in by looking just like everybody else. But they are also driven by a need to meet the impossible standards set by today’s society. And is it any wonder? In our mass media, pop culture-centred society, the effects of a constant barrage of artificially retouched images of physical attractiveness and unattainable ideal bodies are unavoidable. Kids
can’t miss the message. Neither can we, their parents.

Ali’s mother is slim, toned and obsessed with her figure. She watches her diet and works out to maintain the shape she had 20 years ago. As a peri-menopausal woman, it’s a battle she’s far too
willing to engage in. Much to Ali’s chagrin, her mom has slimmer hips than she has, wears clothes that are a size smaller and often reminds her about it. She also questions Ali’s food choices and chastises her for indulging in the odd treat. Ali cries often. She can’t understand why her mother is blessed with a ‘perfect’ figure while she is constantly fighting her big hips. She’s actually jealous of her mom.

Ali has a complete misconception of herself. The image she sees reflected in the mirror is entirely distorted. She finds it difficult to understand how she and her mother can be so different, missing the obvious reason that no two bodies are alike. Some days Ali binges on food. Then she’ll spend two days fasting. Or else she’ll drink prune juice to try to purge herself as she competes with her mother’s naturally petite body.

Why are mothers and daughters in competition? Why can’t grown women accept that as they age their bodies change and that their obsession with perfection may be sending a negative message to their children? “Because grown women are vulnerable to body image issues too,” says Caitlin Shipley, a registered social worker who works with teens with eating disorders and their families. “Society can make us feel inadequate and undesirable and overweight on a daily basis. And while awareness of how dangerous this message can be is growing, change is slow.”

Yes, plus-size models are becoming more common in magazine spreads and retailers are catering to their needs, but skinny models are still the stars. At Milan’s fall fashion week in February 2007, officials engaged in talks that focused on creating new guidelines regarding the issue of bony models, including a new rule that models will require medical certificates verifying they have a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI). Although plus-sized clothing lines were featured along with full-figured and healthysized models, by the end of the week, skinny girls once again ruled the runways.

It can be distressing for parents to learn that waif-like models and actresses with severe eating disorders are their children’s role models. How can this be? And what can we do about it? Well, we can’t control the media, or ever completely limit what our children will be exposed to. But as caring parents we must face the fact that the media alone isn’t responsible.

Dr. Gail McVey, a professor in Public Health Sciences at The Hospital for Sick Children and The University of Toronto, says, “A healthy body image starts with you. As a parent, ask yourself the question, what messages do I send to my children? Research tells us that children whose parents are dissatisfied with their own body shape (and make negative comments about the way others look) are more likely to develop concerns around body image.”

Hmm. How often have you heard yourself remark about your too-fat thighs, your too-wide hips, your need to shed a few pounds? Or maybe you’ve looked in the mirror and complained about what you saw. It’s easy. We’ve all done it – because we’ve all been trained to think this way.

Now as for that bra I didn’t need in Grade Seven – I’m not blaming
my mother because after all, I begged her to buy it for me, but she
suggested the girdle. It was a must-have accessory for girls in those
days, the thing to do, that’s all. It was what mothers did back then –
encourage their daughters to try to improve and refine their bodies to
make them more presentable. What parents can do today is to be aware of
the pressures their kids – boys as well as girls – face to look perfect,
and help them to like and accept their bodies just as they are. The
slogan of the National Eating Disorders Information Centre (NEDIC), a
Canadian, non-profit organization, says it all: “It’s not our bodies
that need changing, it’s our attitudes.”

Deb Loughead and Jocelyn Shipley are the co-editors of Cleavage, an anthology for young adults.

of feeling guilty, lead by example. Here are some proactive steps you
can take to help your kids develop confidence and to promote a positive
body image at home:

  • Celebrate your body for what it is instead of worrying about what it
    isn’t. Your own positive body image has a big influence on your
  • Try not to obsess about your appearance or anyone else’s.
  • Develop healthy eating habits and focus on nutrition rather than fad diets as part of a natural and balanced lifestyle.
  • Exercise for fun and fitness rather than weight loss.
  • Reassure children that puberty brings many normal body changes,
    such as an increase in body fat, and that this happens at different
    ages for different kids.
  • Point out that body size and shape are partly genetic and it would be impossible and undesirable for everyone to look alike.
  • Help kids choose clothing that they feel good in.
  • Make kids aware that fashion photos in magazines or online are
    often airbrushed or enhanced and that ads are designed to sell a
  • Discuss how unreal and unattainable the celebrity lifestyle is
    for most people, and encourage kids to have realistic goals and
  • Help kids deal with peer pressure, conflict, teasing and
    bullying. Find out if there are problems at school, and how the school
    treats these issues.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of your children’s lives so that
    their self-esteem is based on abilities and positive qualities rather
    than appearance. PC

a man carrying two children

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