Monday, 18 May 2015

Body Image Awareness for Girls

This article is by our resident school counselor at Radical Parenting. Check out her bio and other articles or submit a question at School Counselor’s Corner: Q&A with Dr. A. 
“Oh my gosh, aren’t they so cute?”  Just look at the adorable, chunky thighs on that baby!  We say it with such affection and genuine adoration.  At 6 months old, these conversations may be perfectly acceptable and end without emotional trauma, but as our children quickly grow, we need to be mindful of the messages we send.  The way children feel about their own bodies is easily influenced by how we address them and how we feel about our own physique.

I may not be sharing any earth shattering information when I tell you that parents are the most influential adults in a child’s life, but I am going to hone in on some specific information.  Did you know that fathers are ranked as the number one teaser in girls’ lives, followed closely by brothers?   Now, I am not out to crucify the male species, but let’s think about the obvious difference between the male and female species.  We clearly relate differently.  Men often having a less direct way of communicating their affection to others.  Often fatherly and brotherly love comes in the form of adorable little nicknames that begin when our children are small and then something happens; the nickname sticks!  Other family members join in and your child is torn between the affection that is associated with their nickname and the negative connotation it carries.  It may not even occur to us when they are little that the nickname is at the very least unflattering, but as they get older and are more self-conscious about their bodies, some names can be downright demeaning!  Girls’ self-esteem can be fragile during adolescence and is often significantly impacted by these seemingly innocent jests, so please be careful about what names you pick and how they affect your children.

Now, let’s talk about Moms. It has been written that same-sex parents are the most influential, so let’s see what some real power can do.  Unfortunately, we feed the same problem by placing so much emphasis on appearance for our children.  Our language surrounds what we see, “Aren’t you cute?”  “Don’t you look beautiful?”  “I love that new outfit.”  “You look so slim in that.”  Really?  Are those the important qualities we want our children to be concentrating on?  Particularly, our daughters, suffer from this emphasis on external beauty and internalize a long standing need to feel accepted and approved.

Women are stereotypically described as perpetually dissatisfied with their bodies and we role model this discontent.  We read fashion magazines filled with people who look nothing like us, following diets that rarely work, constantly talk about what we should or should not eat, and express general disgust with our physique.  This, my female friends, is the social norm for us.  How very sad that we must walk around spewing unsatisfactory comments about ourselves to be accepted.  In fact, do you know anyone who talks about how happy they are with their body or who does not negate an appearance-related compliment?  “What, this old dress?” “You really think I look slimmer?  Just 10 more pounds to go!”  Even if we do feel good, we feel the need to dismiss it or reach for more.  What happened to just being satisfied with what we have currently?

With such role modeling, how do we expect our children to feel any differently about their bodies than we do about our own?    It starts with us changing our tune, appreciating our bodies for what they allow us to do: exercise to feel strong physically and mentally, bear and play with our children, and participate in enjoyable life activities.   If our focus changed from our exterior appearance to what our bodies provided for us, think of the impact.

Here are a few suggestions on how to put our parental influence to work:

1)   Watch Our Language: Yes, this one is painfully obvious, but not always as easy as we think.  Be careful about the nicknames.  It may seem silly, but I can tell you it is brought up over and over again in therapy sessions.  Save yourself the money and choose a name that is healthy and appropriate!

Try to curb your appearance-related comments.  I know this is not going to eliminate every comment regarding appearance and there may even be times when a, “Wow!  You look amazing!”  is totally appropriate (shall we say prom night?), but on the whole, ensure that your focus is on your child’s character and accomplishments.  Try this on for size, “You must feel great about …ABC (accomplishment).  That shows real …XYZ (character trait).”  After all, isn’t that what we really care about?

2)   Be Active: First and foremost, role model appropriate levels of activity.  Having your children watch you incorporate any kind of physical activity into your daily routine will help them realize it is a priority to you and will help them internalize this message for their future health.  The goal, however, is to be consistent!  If you are constantly battling between forcing yourself to do 2 hours of cardio a day versus doing nothing, the message becomes that exercise is a chore.  Being an extremist makes things complicated and rarely sends the intended message or helps you physically.  If you could find a happy medium of an activity you enjoy and can stick to, the more positive your message will be that this is your chosen healthy lifestyle.

Try choosing an activity that is more in line with something you enjoy, for example a sport you love or walking with a friend so you can socialize.  You are far more likely to keep up a consistent model if you are genuinely benefitting from the activity.   Additionally, this might create some interest from your child, who you could try to include and create quality time with one another…bonus!

3)   Talk Positively about your own Body:  I know, I know.  It seems hardly possible for some of us, but let’s just try it.  Let your kids catch you talking about how good exercise feels, not because it keeps you thin, but because it makes you strong and healthy.  Discuss how confident you feel when you appear professional rather than how pretty you are or are not.  Express appreciation for being able to take an active role in your child’s life when playing with them.  These comments may not come naturally and may seem minute, but with practice they can become affective statements that help alter your child’s self-perception and instill a sense of…wait for it..Self-Satisfaction!  Imagine that!

This article is by our resident school counselor at Radical Parenting. Check out her bio and other articles or submit a question at School Counselor’s Corner: Q&A with Dr. A. 
Dr. Allison Agliata (“Dr. A”) is a licensed psychologist and earned her Undergraduate Degree in Psychology, Master’s Degree in Psychology, and Doctorate of Philosophy degree in Clinical Psychology (2005), all from the University of Central Florida.  During her graduate studies, her work focused on adolescent teasing, parent/child expectations, and body image. She completed her APA-accredited internship through the United States Air Force and served as an active duty psychologist for four years, holding many clinical and administrative positions. Dr. A currently serves as a school counselor at Carrollwood Day School (CDS), an International Baccalaureate private school in Tampa, FL educating Toddlers through High School students.  CDS is also a Blue Ribbon School and National School of Character. Wife to fellow psychologist, Dr. Dan Agliata, and mother of three, Dr. A spends much of her free time with her family, traveling, and baking.