There’s so much focus on the visual when we discuss body image, we can sometimes forget how influential the language we use can be.
This is one of the few instances where, instinctually, we tend to do completely the wrong thing. Parents are always saying to me: ‘I tell him/her all the time he/she is gorgeous/perfect just the way he/she is.’
And why wouldn’t you? They have an issue with their body and you are reassuring them that their body is just fine as it is. It’s completely logical to assume this would be the right approach.
However, we must always bear in mind that how we feel about our body is a reflection of what is going on in our mind. How many times in your life have your heard someone use the phrase ‘I feel really fat, today’?
Just think about that for a moment. We’re so used to hearing it we’ve lost sight of the fact that it makes absolutely no bloody sense as a statement, whatsoever. You can’t ‘feel’ fat. Fat is not
a feeling. It isn’t like misery, or loneliness. So what is that person actually saying to you?
They’re actually saying ‘I feel fucking terrible about myself today but those feelings are too complex to unravel and express. Instead, I’m going to project them onto something tangible and easy to manage and talk to you about my body.’ It’s quite clear, then, that responding with ‘Don’t be silly, you are gorgeous just the way you are’ isn’t going to address the root of the problem.
People with body image insecurities are in desperate need of reminding that their value lies in more than simply their exterior appearance. Again, this is more of a consistent, drip feed approach than something which can be achieved during a one-off conversation, but regularly reminding people that you see, recognise and value qualities which cannot be captured in a selfie will probably slowly erode their body image concerns.
Girlguiding and Dove discovered that students whose school work was rated ‘outstanding’ were twice as likely to dismiss the prospect of having cosmetic surgery in the future as their classmates. This speaks volumes about the power of recognising talents you have outside of your physical appearance in building a foundation of body confidence.
We tell people they look lovely all the time. Yet we rarely take three seconds to acknowledge when someone does something kind, or thoughtful, or brave. From our earliest formative years, more of a fuss is made of us during occasions like weddings and 145 birthday parties, when we are dressed in cute little outfits. The message children receive is ‘the more effort I put into looking good, the more attention I will get.’
Now, it would be utterly impossible to restrain ourselves from ever cooing over cute-looking small people. I know I’m not capable of it and I’m fairly certain no other human being is, either. Just the other day, I was staying in a hotel up North and saw two little girls dressed up for some sort of event in silk dresses with sticky-out skirts and big sashes around their gorgeous plump little bellies and I made that high-pitched sound that only women who have just seen something adorable can make. I also told them they looked beautiful. This is me we’re talking about here, who has almost a decade of experience working in the field of body image and knows far, far better than to be that stupid.
So, working on the basis that banishing all talk of physical attractiveness is not going to happen any time soon, the only way to counteract the effect is to make an equally big palaver when children and young people achieve things other than looking nice.
As parents, the achievements you choose to emphasise are really at your discretion. Just work on the basis that whatever you praise your child for most often will come to be how they define themselves and therefore the quality they will most frequently exhibit throughout their lives. If I were you, I’d make a point of verbally rewarding kindness and bravery but that’s just me…
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