Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.

— Winston Churchill

Helping Children Create a Positive Body Image

Beautiful Like Me

I’m always happy to put pen to paper for a worthy endeavor and when WickedStepMom asked me to join in a round-table blogging effort related to helping children create a positive self image, I said sure. Then she assigned the first topic and I thought damn.

For her project, Beautiful Like Me, she asked us to write about how our own body image affects our children’s image of their bodies, which is a much more difficult post to write than if I could simply wrangle some research and talk in general terms about helping children create positive self esteem. She actually wants me to think about myself and how my own actions and thoughts are most likely internalized by my child? (insert random curse words here) She doesn’t want this first post to talk about all the ways beauty shines from within, but instead to discuss the challenges we present to our children by defining beauty when we look in our own mirror?

Before I take you down that self-absorbed road of doubt and reflection, let’s talk a little about who it is that I’m trying to parent. I have a son who just turned five and although he seeks me for nose wiping, shoe finding and all the warmth and comfort he seems to think breasts bestow, he very much wants to emulate his dad, which I’m thankful for.

Example Setting

What's real, what's airbrushed, and what's steroids?

What's real, what's airbrushed, and what's steroids?

My husband is 63-years-old and he’s in better physical shape than I am many 33-year-old men. He exercises regularly. He has decent eating habits, and he doesn’t indulge in excess. He’s also been blessed with some great genetics, which I think he’s passed on to our son. However, Portuguese men tend to be small-framed and certainly they don’t fit the movie-star embodiment of a six-foot Adonis.

Our son, Aaron, will most likely not grow to be six-foot tall with broad shoulders. How this will translate throughout his teenage years, I have no real idea. After reading several reports over the weekend about the rapidly growing increase of eating disorders among boys and their relentless pursuit of an ideal body, and their use of steroids, my radar is certainly beginning to tune. We really do live in a world in need of role models that don’t come with retouched thighs and muscles pumped with drugs.

In trying to write this post, I keep coming back to the thought that body image is not an isolated component of self esteem. Confidence and self esteem are a total package that includes feelings about our physicality, our sexuality, but it includes so much more, and that’s really where I tend to focus my confidence building efforts with my child.

Finding Passion
I mentioned my husband, Kim, who’s the primary male roll model in our son’s life. Kim wasn’t an athlete. He wasn’t a stellar student. In American terms of male vigor and vitality, he would never have made the football team. But Kim did something that transcended his physical stature. He discovered a passion for music and became quite the rock ‘n roller. Oh yes, my small-framed husband found his confidence in the strings of a guitar, complete with bra-flinging groupies. He was larger than life.

When you find a passion, something you can excel at, lose yourself to, believe in…the idea of being just like everyone else becomes less appealing. Quite frankly, I’m more interested in helping Aaron to discover a passionate pursuit as a key to helping him create a positive self image than I am in focusing on annihilating the extraordinary mix of unhealthy messages he’s going to be bombarded with. We all know what’s wrong, but we’re not doing a very good job of unsubscribing.

Celebrating Uniqueness

May he always see the beauty inside himself

May he always see the beauty inside himself

Aaron is rarely caught up in doing what everyone else is doing just for the sake of sameness. If all the children in his class are getting their faces painted, you can bet Aaron will find something else to do. If all the other little boys are jumping till exhaustion in one of those bouncy things, Aaron will choose an activity he finds more engaging. He absolutely refuse to do something he doesn’t like just because all the other kids are doing it, and as his parent I can already see this has caused some awkward moments. I’m trying to find ways to celebrate his choices to be different rather than encourage him to conform. The last thing I want to do is send him a message that conformity is the expectation and route to achievement.

My son doesn’t let a day go by without telling me, absent of any humility, that he’s amazing. He believes it, most likely because I tell him just about every day that he is amazing, and I happen to believe it. His ego is healthy, yet he also has a solid sense of grace and empathy for those around him. The trick of course is going to be helping him grow these little buds of esteem and empathy as he matures and becomes more aware of all the messages that will undoubtedly try to smother him in a sense of inadequacy.

Aaron and his preschool buddies like to play superheroes, and everyone picks a cartoon character to portray on the playground, everyone that is except my child. Aaron has made up his own hero who has his very own cache of extraordinary and unearthly powers. The character’s name? Well, it’s Super Aaron, of course. I could go on and on about how much Aaron thinks of himself, and how his self esteem seems to be fully functioning and prosperous, but I know this won’t always be the case. Helping a 5-year-old feel like he’s a super hero is a lot easier than helping a 13-year-old boy feel valued amongst hormonal angst, media messages and peer pressure, but we’re working to lay the foundation.

My Own Body Image
animal_scalesHere’s the part of the post I was supposed to write, but have avoided. I have a fairly solid sense of myself, which continues to evolve as I mature and experience new ideas and challenges. My self esteem is tied to many, many things and it’s fairly healthy, except in the area WickedStepMom originally asked us to write about. My body image is sorely lacking at this particular moment. In the last 18-24 months I’ve taken refuge in an idea that chocolate can cure anxiety and coupled with an ailing back, my exercise regime has become sporadic. The net results…about 25 pounds.

With some unwanted reflection, I of course realize putting on weight in response to anxiety and using every excuse in the book to avoid exercise are exactly the opposite messages I want Aaron to percolate. Regardless of how his body develops, I want his mind to develop a keen sense of his physical self. I want him to feel strong, healthy and vital…all of which are only possible through sensible eating habits and physical activity.

We can’t talk about body image without discussing body weight. I don’t believe our self worth should be tied to a number on a scale, but I do believe we are more confident when we feel physically fit. When our bodies are functioning as they should, when we’re taking time to take care of ourselves, when we make our own fitness a priority, our self image improves. I don’t think there are many valid reasons for being over weight and I won’t tell my child that obesity is beautiful, but I will continue to show him and to explain to him that people are so much more than the size of our pants. It’s a freaky tight rope to walk where we say yes, you need to be physically fit but don’t define yourself by how you look. We are all roll models  and I need to do a better job of being a positive role model.

Mental and Physical Empowerment
The essence of WickedStepMom’s awareness project is to celebrate and accept beauty in its varied forms. I happen to think beauty in the sense of physical attractiveness is something we celebrate far too much, and instead of encouraging Aaron to think of himself as externally beautiful, regardless, I want to encourage him to feel empowered, physically and mentally.

As a society we have a beauty standard that’s just about impossible to achieve, and I think when we tell children they’re beautiful, regardless of what they see in the mirror, we’re doing them a disservice. They see the magazines, their peers, the Hollywood prescriptions and they know how they do or don’t measure up to those ridiculous standards. Instead of focusing on beauty regardless, which seems like an odd message, I’d like to help Aaron (and myself) focus on strength and vitality. On wit and mind share. I do not want to tell him that although he may not look like Brad Pitt, he’s just as beautiful. He’s simply not going to believe me and instead it will sound patronizing and defeatist. I want to change the dialogue and give him different benchmarks by which he’ll measure himself, and the beauty in his life.

I also hope that Aaron will take some cues from his father as it relates to female beauty and attractiveness. Regardless of how I look, how much or how little I weigh, there’s never, not even once, been an evident change in how my husband treats me, how affectionate he is with me or in his complimentary nature. As parents, we set the tone, the example, and we provide the family structure and strength for Aaron to find beauty in whatever form he decides it lives. How my husband and I treat each other and the people we encounter will continue to be critical in helping Aaron define his sense of security and his sense of internal strength.

I have a lot to learn, and I’m quite sure I’ll fall off a cliff here and there as Aaron grows and eventually enters adolescence. I hope when he sees me fall, he’ll also see me pull myself back up and start climbing again. In my mind, that would be stunning.

Your Thoughts…
Here are a few things that we do at home to help keep ourselves in check and to hopefully create positive messages for our child. I hope you’ll add to the list and share some of what you’re doing or thinking to help the children in your life create a positive self image.

  • We don’t talk negatively about other people’s bodies, or our own.
  • We emphasize good hygiene and grooming habits
  • We don’t make fun of people with physical challenges
  • We encourage empathy
  • We don’t discuss our food in terms of fattening, but rather we discuss healthy vs. unhealthy choices
  • After exercising, we talk about how good and energized we feel rather than discussing weight gain or loss
  • I NEVER weigh myself in front of my child because he’d snitch to his father about how much I weigh because I don’t want him to associate a number on a scale with a positive or negative reaction
  • When I talk about beauty, I am typically mentioning things in our environment and surroundings as beautiful.
  • When I use beautiful as a descriptor for a person, I tie it to a personality trait like generosity or empathy rather than physical appearance
  • We try to provide different experiences and exposure to help show all the very different ways beauty is expressed in different cultures

In addition to WickedStepMom and myself, check out these bloggers who also committed to posting today and sharing their topical thoughts:

Also, for a moving visual essay and commentary, read Suffering for Beauty at MomGrind.

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16 comments to Helping Children Create a Positive Body Image

  • Amy

    What wonderful thoughts! Aaron is very lucky and it shows in his confidence! I so frequently think of body image as a female issue, thanks for bringing in some male perspective!!!

    Amys last blog post..Self-Image – Beautiful Like Me!

  • Thanks for writing. I know this was a difficult topic. I am glad that you show Aaron that there is more to beautiful than physical appearances.

    WickedStepMoms last blog post..Beautiful Like Me: A look in the mirror

  • This is such a great post! You bring up so many good points and I love your list of things you are doing. They are all great things. I too do most of those things on your list and did them with my older kids while they were growing up yet like my post said, I did those things, yet it was contradictory messages I gave them by doing these other things at the same time.

    Loris last blog post..I Am Beautiful Like Me.

  • Jan

    I’ve avoided this project for a couple of reasons – first, my kids are, by and large, grown and whatever damage I’ve done is, well, done. Secondly, it is a very touchy subject with me, for I had zero self-esteem for many years and it had very little to do with my body image (which, admittedly, has been shaky at best in the past).

    I must have done something right, though, at least as far as Darling Daughter is concerned. You see, Jolly, Beloved’s oldest daughter, is tall, statuesque and gorgeous. But she has had a problem forming and sustaining relationships, especially with men. Indeed, her current relationship is her first “serious” one. She dresses provocatively, but is definitely not comfortable with her body or herself. She has no real “girlfriends.”

    Darling Daughter, on the other hand, has a beautiful face (ah, the bane of every fat girl!) but is short and stocky like her father. Even if she were at her ideal weight, she’d never be slender and willowy. However, she is so self-confident, so charming and has so much personality that people are naturally drawn to her and she has young men of every body type chasing after her – many of her boyfriends are/have been drop dead gorgeous and they all think she is adorable.

    Being beautiful has so little to do with how you look.

    Jans last blog post..Boy, Howdy!

  • I try very hard not to talk negatively about my own body in front of my daughters. In fact, I try very hard not do THINK negatively about my own body. I grew up with a “dieting mom,” and it really does affect the way you view your own body, being constantly surrounded with “diet talk.”

    Vered – MomGrinds last blog post..First Rose of the Season

  • I love that list, and follow some of the same things. I was anorexic at 16 and I am hyperaware how mindful my kids are, watching me and how well I care for myself. Great post.

    Lisa Miltons last blog post..spring break was good and then it came to an end

  • Fabulous post. My post took me hours and hours, I would not shut up about this subject LOL I think I may have yammered on too long and gone off subject. I love what you had to say. You’re my hero <3

    Lisa @ Crazy Adventures in Parentings last blog post..Beautiful Like Me – Self Image – Week 1

  • Tricia

    Amy: Thanks. I’m guilty of thinking of body image as a female issue, although I should know better, and I’m glad this has prompted me to think more about it.

    WickedStepMom: Thanks for prodding me to think about all of this.

    Lori: I loved your post, and the wonderful, personal story you shared. Your honesty is always refreshing and you have the honor of looking at and shaping not just one, but two generations, to learn and grow from mistakes and from the many things you’ve done so well.

    Jan: Humm. I think you’d do a brilliant job with this topic, by the way. Incredibly interesting disparity between your two daughters, and the resulting relationships they’ve formed, or struggled with. I’d love to know more about all of this (inquiring minds and all), and about what you’ve done to help yourself build your own self esteem. Mine has hit rock bottom several times in my life, and I’m quite sure that’s why I was in the first marriage I was in, with all its turmoil. The older I get, the more comfortable I am with myself, but I still have quite a road to travel. Your Darling Daughter sounds just wonderful!!

    Vered: We are what we think, right. I love that point!

    Lisa M.: I’m so sorry you struggled with anorexia. I have someone in my life I love to death who struggled with bulimia as a teenager, and it was such a difficult challenge for her and her family. Kudos to you for your mindfulness.

    Lisa: I love your post and everything in it that you contemplate. I have no idea how we’ve gone so overboard on our focus and pursuit for external “beauty” and what it is that we’re hoping to accomplish long term as a society by telling kids and adults we’re simply not good enough. Drives me a bit crazy as well.

  • Love the post. I definitely agree with passion and celebrating uniqueness. Aaron sounds so creative. I wonder where he gets that from???? Let me think. :-)

    Your list is great. I can’t think of anything to add just yet.

    I just realized I never mentioned the project in my blog. Whoops. This topic surprised me. Self-image, especially my daughter’s, is such a big deal to me. I was sure last week I’d write something about her birthmark because it is the most likely feature of hers she will be self-conscious about. When I sat down to write today, it wasn’t even on my mind. I’m amazing delighted about that. It would be easy to focus on the obvious and neglect the other stuff. I think that is the trouble of having a child with a physical difference. It is so easy to make that difference your primary focus and get caught unprepared for more normal stuff. This project helped me thing bigger picture, even though I only wrote about one thing, and I appreciate that greatly.

    Lisa Ps last blog post..Perfect 10

  • Tricia

    Lisa: I also thought you’d discuss your daughter’s birth mark and was surprised by the larger scope of thought you posted. I really connected with what you had to say, and loved the post. I suppose just like the ideas of external and internal beauty, it’s easy to focus on the obvious. Thanks for such a great reminder.

  • I’m loving reading all these positive self image posts. I wish I’d learned these things as a youngster instead of growing up beating myself up over my appearance. I still do that, and it upsets HBL to no end because even at my ugliest…..he thinks I’m beautiful. How did we get so lucky?

    Midlife Slicess last blog post..A Vacation After My Vacation

  • this is wonderful – and I love your list! thank you for sharing

    coffeejitters (Judy Haley)s last blog post..Beautiful Like Me

  • Tricia

    Midlife Slices: Me too. And on the lucky part, I have no idea, but I’m also pretty thankful.

    Judy: Thanks for jumping in, and for your great post.

  • Wow, you’ve really got it all together. It sounds to me like you’re doing it all right. Where do you buy this type of wisdom?

    Smart Mouth Broads last blog post..I’M A RAMBLER

  • Tricia

    Smart Mouth Broad: Hah! Writing it is the easy part, actually implementing it is the hard part. Wish me luck.

  • [...] Day to Tricia, who writes about family, parenting and relationships in her blog, Shout. Her post Helping Children Create A Positive Body Image is a must-read for any [...]

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