The average child will see up to 40,000 advertisements this year, many of which will be paid for by the $40 billion diet industry. They will see ads telling them they need to lose weight, then revealing the supposed consequences of not doing so: loneliness, exclusion, failure. They’ll see hundreds — if not thousands — of “Before” and “After” photo sets, with the former showing a sad, miserable-looking subject and the latter involving sex appeal and happiness, all because of a “quick” change to the tummy area after an “easy” diet and exercise regime. So is it a futile fight to try keeping kids from all the bad dieting tips and terrible body image outlooks?
This week, Dancing With The Stars co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet told People that she never uses the words “diet” or “fat” in front of her children, who are 4, 6, 10 and 12 in order to maintain a healthy body image:
“I try to never use words like ‘fat’ or ‘diet.’ I try to choose my words carefully with my kids. It’s just about making good choices and enjoying what we eat and making delicious flavorful foods that are healthy. I’m just teaching them about being healthy and strong, not about being thin.”
When I first read this, the pessimist in me could not help but think that it’s nearly impossible to stop kids from being exposed to damaging images, advice and advertisements, thus rendering these efforts futile. Even the most healthy parents with the healthiest body images can’t stop middle school from being a generally hellish place for preteen girls to go and gain every piece of information they need in order to hate themselves for, oh, the next five to ten years. I still remember the first time I was called “ugly,” as well as the first time I was called “fat”; that sort of stuff sticks with you, no matter how much your parents tell you that you’re pretty.
But then I started thinking more about the actual impact it would have done for me to have already internalized — prior to being bullied — that being healthy is more important than being pretty in other people’s eyes. Would things have turned out differently for my body image? Maybe, maybe not, but when I look at my friends who are the most comfortable with their bodies, they’re the ones with parents who never told them to drop pounds and instead taught them the importance of healthiness far beyond the size of your pants.
Obviously, this doesn’t solve everything — eating disorders will still exist, body image issues as a result of advertising will still be an issue, but when parents or other adult role models tell kids that what’s literally inside and how well it functions counts more than how you look on the outside, they often listen more than it may seem. Plus, telling kids not to focus on others’ bodies may just cut down on bullying, which would then decrease the problem overall. Perhaps the optimist in me is showing too hard, but I can’t help but think that as long as 50% of girls 11 to 13 think they’re overweight and need to diet, we need to try whatever possible to stop the bad dieting and image issues, no matter how uphill the battle seems.
Photo: LauraLewis23 / Flickr