I’m old school and still receive a few print magazines in the mail that I like to peruse while the kids play outside. Sometimes my kids will snatch them up and take a peek, which I never minded until I realized they’d discovered the dreaded f-word. My kids have only ever heard me talk about “healthy choices.” I have a strong aversion to the words “skinny” and “fat,” fad diets, and extreme exercise programs because of my own childhood when synonyms like “Barbie doll” and “twig” were used by peers to make fun of my tall, thin, curve-less body.
I desperately wanted to find clothing that wasn’t too short on my long legs, and it would have been nice to need more than a training bra by high school. The turmoil I faced isn’t uncommon. No matter a person’s body type, they are likely to face scrutiny about their appearance, especially throughout their childhood. I am determined to make sure to focus my own kids’ attention is on health, including intuitive eating, rather than judging another person’s (or their own) weight, size, or food choices.
Teaching kids about body-positivity and body acceptance isn’t about hiding all the magazines, deleting all the apps, and never using the word “fat.” In fact, some of my friends swear that “fat” is a powerful term they’ve taken back and use with pride. What is the best, holistic approach parents can take to raise kids who love themselves and withhold judging other people’s appearances? What if, instead, it was all about celebrating the body we have and rejecting society’s toxic demands?
Rebecca Alexander, author of A Kids’ Book About Body Image, is here to offer us some powerful, effective advice. Alexander is the founder and CEO of AllGo, a review platform that allows plus-size users to “rate the comfort and accessibility of public places.”
She wrote the book because, as she tells Scary Mommy, she was a “fat kid” who is now “a fat adult.” She’s had to remind herself that she deserves to eat, to have a family, and to treat herself with kindness—the same kindness she extends to others. Her journey inspired her to help others live the same deserving life.
“Our whole society is geared toward getting kids and adults to dislike at least one thing about our appearance,” she shares. For her, it was her weight. These insecurities, she adds, “are the basis in which thousands of companies sell diet pills and skin lightening creams. If we don’t feel bad about some aspect of our appearance, we wouldn’t spend money to ‘fix’ it.”
When we were kids, there were dangerous, body-negative images in our magazines and on television, but today, there is much more toxic media to contend with, including filters within apps. Alexander shares that currently, “unattainable images of yourself are just a few swipes away.” Her book can help parents deal with “these pressures by reorienting kids to think about what’s really cool about their bodies.” Remember, she adds, “we don’t feel insecure about ourselves for no reason, which helps kids contextualize the messages their getting from the media.”
She wants us to make sure we’re teaching our kids that the companies selling ridiculous products like “lollipop-shaped laxatives”—a weight-loss product — aren’t being nice. They are selling products for profit, not because they “actually care about their health.” Teaching our kids to be critical thinkers, to get beyond the surface and dig deeper, finding out the “why” behind the message, is important.
When I used to teach college composition, we always did a unit—my favorite—on advertisement analysis. The students would choose one print ad and analyze it, everything from the colors, the model’s pose and expression, the text, any props, and more. They also had to look up the product’s cost. This proved to be fascinating and eye-opening for many of the students since they’d never been taught by their parents or previous educators on how to carefully examine advertisements. At the end of the day, ads are selling something, and often they dupe you with images of what is considered to be the “ideal body.”
Teaching our kids—without lecturing them—is important, but what can we do as adults? How can we be role models for our children, you know, leading by example? Alexander offers a practical tip. “Parents need to be in photos,” she says. “Take pictures of yourself with your kids at all angles and display with pride in your home. Show your kids that you’re happy with how you look and it will give them the strength to be happy themselves.” I admit, I’m feeling a bit guilty reading this. How often am I behind the camera, rather than in front of it?
She also brings up an important point. Growth charts, particularly BMI charts, convey a dangerous message to parents. We are supposed to make sure our children are proportionate, putting pressure on us to make sure they’re eating enough of the right things and being active, while also driving us to hyper-fixate on every inch and ounce. This will absolutely rub off on our children in negative ways. If they see us worried about numbers rather than feelings, what does that teach our kids?
What’s the alternative? We need to teach our kids about food that nourishes them, stay active with our kids, and above all, “teach them how to listen to their bodies.” She warns us not to sacrifice our kids’ mental health for the sake of their physical health. She adds, “We’ve replaced intuition with information. Today’s parents need to find balance.”
She also encourages us to diversify our children’s media intake. We need to intentionally choose books, movies, and television shows (I’d also like to add in apps) “where the characters that look like your kids are the heroes.” Too often media focuses on putting the most societally-deemed attractive person in the spotlight, which can set another dangerous precedent for kids.
There are so many incredible books among the A Kids Book About series, including Alexander’s. Each covers critically important topics that parents sometimes have a hard time discussing with their children. A Kids Book About Body Images helps children and parents start important conversations about what it means to appreciate our bodies.