*THE ORIGINAL POST WAS AN ARTICLE I WROTE FOR ENTREPRENURSERY (HERE), A FLEXIBLE CO-WORKING SPACE FOR PARENTS, ON 1 DECEMBER 2017.
Disclaimer: I am not a parent (yet).
It is not too early to think about the topic of ‘body positivity.’
Body positivity is just as relevant for adults as it is for the children in their lives. While the terminology is already shifting, and will be shifting in the coming years, surely the gist of what is meant by the term is something to uphold: the idea that you have the right to feel good about your body. It is just fine if this is not always the case, but every individual deserves to be liberated from the pressure of mainstream imagery, and the perpetual shame felt when she or he falls short of that ‘goal.’ It is a liberating realisation when it hits, and a refreshing reminder in the lifetime that follows.
The far reaching consequences of not ‘feeling good’ about one’s body is a realisation that has been decades in the making. At the very start of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, she writes of the awakening to the confusion of internalized beauty standards coupled with a progressive mindset:
“But in spite of shame, guilt, and denial, more and more women are wondering if it isn’t that they are entirely neurotic and alone but rather that something important is indeed at stake that has to do with the relationship between female liberation and female beauty.”
Wolf was writing in the early nineties. Since then, different groups have sought to address what Wolf was unmasking, and expand the target issues. The current championing of body positivity is being carried forward, challenged, and made fit-for-purpose, for every body, by a myriad of books, personal stories, articles, Instagram accounts, and even, controversially, big brands.
As this discussion is meant to be an immersive experience, a good place to start is to ask, “What does body positivity mean to you?”
Nora Whelan at Buzzfeed writes:
“Body positivity is about working toward a world where everyone can live in their bodies as they please while receiving the same respect, representation, and opportunities as everyone else.”
For me, the word ‘uncomfortable’ is a good buzzword for why we need body positivity. Not ever being comfortable with my body was, and still can be, draining. It infects everything from how long it takes me to get ready, to confidence with strangers, to vulnerability with friends and family. So I would couple this with the word ‘representation,’ as it was possibly the biggest shift in experience with my body for me to see a model, Iskra Lawrence (@iskra), whose clothes fit her the way clothing fits me, and who was absolutely unapologetic (after a long period of struggle herself, I would add) about her body.
Now, this is a great time to reiterate that body positivity is for every individual.
However, just as in society, not everyone is equally represented within movements with the best of intentions. While seen by many as a force for good, body positivity is not immune to falling short of being fully representative. I have struggled with body weight. That said, as a white, cisgender woman, I get to see white models all the time, and have been categorised on a BMI chart as dancing with the ‘overweight’ category. The body positive movement has come to represent any size, and has definitely resonated with me. It should be able to resonate with every individual, and all of the intersections of their identities (e.g. size, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation). But, particularly with its origins in the fat acceptance movement, it is important to watch how the movement evolves, and what individuals it may leave out. Some have argued that it is no longer representative of the movement of its origins, while others claim it has been commandeered by big brands that are selective in who represents them.
Just as it is important to think about what body positivity means to you, it is important to remain alert of what it means to others. I believe this alertness will also be a quality that will trickle down to supporting your child, and, as a bi-product, other individuals who you or your child’s life touches. Confidence is contagious, and this does not exclude body confidence.
I have a made a list of reminders to myself that I hope, in our shared aim of raising body positive children, you will be inspired to use and to create even more.
This list is incomplete, and is neither mutually exclusive nor indicative of every experience. I do not have all of the answers, but I do have a lot of ideas born out of my own experience getting to where I am today.
Reminder 1: Your child’s body will change – daily, weekly, yearly.
This is an obvious claim, but it is not so obvious to your child. From bloating to weight gain to growth spurts to getting ‘hips,’ your child needs tools to understand the transitions her or his body undergo, why it is normal and healthy, and that a longing to return to a prior form of themselves may simply not be possible – and that is OK. I was a competitive figure skater on a strict training regimen as an adolescent. It was an utter shock when my body stopped looking and feeling the way it had for years (muscular, lean, and, in my mind, capable of anything). While I did not have the understanding to realise that exiting my sport was a transition period in my life, and so too for my body, I did develop an unexplained discomfort with myself and an unspoken worry about what others in my life thought of the change. This discomfort led to an unhealthy yearning to look the way I once did as a teenager and competitive athlete, though these were two things I would never be again. My discomfort lasted for a decade to come.
What will validating these changes do for your child? They have a lifetime journey with their body ahead, and the sooner they embrace the idea of change, physically and mentally, the happier they will be with what is to come. You can provide conversations for them to learn about their body, and for you to celebrate the changes.
Reminder 2: Your child is strong.
Strength can be a very powerful model for one’s body. I recognise that you may not send your child out to lift weights, and also that not every child is capable of developing their physical strength. However, being strong need not be tied to intensity, it is tied to mentality. Strength is something you can feel. Show your child diverse role models who are using their physical and mental fortitude in creative and incredible ways. Physical strength is not better than mental, nor are they separate from one another. Both are highly capable to adapt to and endure challenges.
What will affirming your child’s strength do for them? It reframes their thinking towards their body, as not about weight gain or loss, but about capability. It will inspire them to cultivate their strength, and reframe their ideas of confidence as far, far beyond aesthetics. It will also show them how it is natural to want to make changes to your body, or even for drastic changes to happen to a person’s body (as with Reminder 1), but that it is an incredible vessel that you want to care for so it can keep being incredible.
Reminder 3: Food can help your child achieve their dreams.
It sounds simple, and also is linked to Reminder 2, but food is power and should not be something kept absent from their goals or seen as an enemy to them. If recognition of the wonders of this form of energy is developed early, it can help later in life with a multitude of issues. I do not speak for every eating disorder or the nuanced origins under which these can be developed. Yet I maintain that having the foundation of a strong relationship with food to fall back on may have made a difference for me when I saw it as the enemy: something to restrict, or fear when I did not.
What will a happy relationship with food do for your child? It will demonstrate the affect that food can have on their wellbeing, and provide a productive way to delve into issues of health. If you start respect for nourishment from an early age, and separate it from other struggles, it may provide your child an outlet from stress and anxiety. You can also tie it to positive activities like cooking and mealtime with family. It may give your child the tools to support their friends when confronted with an unhealthy approach that their peer group may have to food (rather then to fall into that line of thinking). Finally, it will also provide your child with an understanding and respect for those who go without this basic need, and may inspire them to want to help solve a social justice issue.
Reminder 4: Fight against the confusion of ‘respect’ and ‘shame’ regarding taboo body subjects.
There is a much finer line between ‘respect’ and ‘shame’ than we wish to see, as regards the body. We teach our children to be respectful of their bodies and the bodies of others, and in this day and age I cannot underscore the importance of that enough. Yet, being respectful of certain body topics can also promote feelings of shame for your child. For example: periods. Getting one’s period is a big moment, and it continues to happen, for many, every month for decades. But we are told to largely steer clear of period talk with others, which sends the underlying message that instead of respecting our body for what is happening, we should be ashamed of it. Too many people have humiliating stories surrounding their period, and we are conditioned to find an unused tampon as something to conceal at all cost. Furthermore, far too few boys and men are given an understanding of this topic, though why should they not know the basics of a natural occurrence for many of their siblings and peers? Feeling ashamed about one aspect of the body can be pervasive in the entire relationship a child has with her or his body, so we need to be aware of the confusing signals they may be receiving, from others and us. At the end of the day, fearless respect is what our goal should be. We need to recognise when our efforts to promote this run counter.
What will tackling taboos with your child do for them? Discussing areas where respect may be confused with shame will affirm for your child it is ok to talk to you openly about their body, and this will become important, especially, when something is wrong. It will affirm that they should be proud of their bodies, irrespective of societal norms they may feel necessary to follow (e.g. tampon stashing). And, as an added bonus, tackling taboos will teach them to be a future advocate for others, be it those who are not respectful of their body or others’, who experience embarrassment, or who could benefit from talking through something off-limits, yet critical to their wellbeing.
Reminder 5: Challenge your child to accept themselves and others.
Unfortunately, parents are often best placed to give their child the advice and confidence they need, but worst placed for this to resonate with their child. I hated my eyebrows when I was ten. They were (still are) big and bushy, but the razor thin eyebrows were all the rage at the turn of the century. Despite my mother protesting (I recall a mention of Brooke Shields), I was adamant about waxing them off. It is shocking to see in photos now, especially now that brows are back in vogue. However, I use this as an example to show both how silly (and damaging) ‘trends’ can be for your child, and also how difficult it can be as a parent to get your child to embrace their natural self. What is more, it becomes further complicated as I think a child should be able to explore their identity, and this includes their physical appearance. So how do you shepherd them through this without promoting further insecurities and without stifling independence? While not always possible, try providing your child with the tools to recognise for themselves what a trends is (i.e. share your own experiences growing up, give them a full picture of all the different ways in which you can explore your identity beyond appearance, show them diverse role models, etc.).
What will challenging your child’s perceptions do for them – especially if you are unsuccessful? Even if you are unable to sway your child from waxing their brows or wanting to try out dark eyeliner, the importance is that after this dialogue they will be (hopefully) on their way to making changes based on exploration, not based on self-doubt.
As an overall and final point, why this matters is because the struggles around body image are sweeping, and seep into ugly elements of society in regards to how we treat one another.
As parents, we want our kids to be happy and healthy, and, also, to treat others well. We can prepare for both the former and the latter by starting with how we treat ourselves. So, again, what does body positivity mean for you? Let us all make sure the next generation are aware of how great they are and of the greatness of others around them. If we can achieve this, we can help insure that generation utilises their energy to fight beneficial battles– not one against their own body.