Each year, the last week of February marks National Eating Disorder Awareness Week across the country. This year, on Sunday February 21st, The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt will kick-off a full week of events designed not only to promote awareness for the cause, but ultimately to spread education that will help prevent eating disorders before they begin. Who better to give this message than author, educator and parenting expert, Rosalind Wiseman? Wiseman is the author of the bestselling book, “Queen Bees & Wannabes”, “Owning Up” body image curriculum, and a new young adult novel, “Boys, Girls & Other Hazardous Material”. In anticipation of her keynote presentation in Baltimore, we asked Rosalind Wiseman to answer some tough questions about body image concerns and weight issues among youth. This is what she had to say…
Simply stated, what are some of the most effective things parents can do to help their children develop confidence and a positive self image?
From the earliest ages you have to teach your child how to navigate Girl and Boy World – a world that will try to convince your child that they are not good enough unless they conform to a rigid belief system of how you should look and how you should act.
It’s almost impossible, as much as parents want this to be the case, to completely protect your child from the influence of these Worlds. More realistically, parents should, age-appropriately, inform their children how to withstand its insidious ability to make people feel worthless unless they buy into it. Are you teaching them – by word and deed – that you are more than your physical presentation? For example, when you’re watching TV, listening to the music your kids like, or talking about their friends and the people they gravitate towards, use it as an opportunity to help the child think critically about what they are learning in those moments. The lessons are not only about how they define “beautiful,” but about how they can be convinced that they will never physically match up – pretty enough, masculine enough – to what they’re “supposed” to be.
Another important part of this is to allow room for having the difficult but important conversations about body image -particularly when children feel rejected -instead of ignoring it or responding with common yet often ineffective responses like, “Everyone’s beautiful in their own way,” “Those people are just insecure,” or “People should see you for what you are on the inside, and if they don’t they’re not worth it.”
Instead, while of course you can tell your child that he or she is beautiful, allow the child to talk about how and why they are feeling like they’re not good enough. Sit with these uncomfortable feelings so you can get to a place where the child feels that it’s not weak to talk about it, and that everyone has to deal with these feelings of insecurity. The very process of talking with your child goes a long way toward being able to withstand the pressures of Girl World and Boy World, and toward developing healthy body image.
In Queen Bees & Wannabes, You refer to the management of weight as “The Competition No One Wins” – can you elaborate on this?
For the vast majority of kids, you feel like you never measure up, and it’s so easy to get to a place of “I’m worthless unless I fit this impossible ideal in my head.” As soon as that happens you’re on a path to low self-esteem. But the reason I say that there really are no winners in this “competition” is that everybody looks at certain people and thinks that because he/she is so beautiful they must never struggle with these issues or they must not be insecure. The reality is, in my experience, even those girls and boys feel like they’re never good enough, or they feel like they would be nothing if that façade were taken away.
Here are some recent blogs from my Website that help to illustrate this point: The Price of Success: Girls, Stress and Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Why We’ve Turned on Heidi Montag.
At what age should parents start actively addressing body image concerns with their children? Is there anything we can do when our kids are infants and toddlers to build a good foundation?
By the time kids are four and five years old, it’s not unusual for them to start making comments about their own or others’ bodies. They may say things like, “I have a big belly” or “That person is so fat.”
Now, there’s a tendency among parents to ignore this, hush it, or say it’s not true. The problem with that strategy is that children are still going to believe what they see but they just won’t have the opportunity to talk about it. So then, it’s left up to the kids on the playground to talk about it and define how to treat people based on how they look. And that’s even more harmful because it will probably be in the context of teasing, shame, or embarrassment. And so as soon as your child starts making comments or asking questions about how people look, you have to take that as an opportunity to talk about people’s differences – you can explain that just like people can have different skin colors, people also come in different sizes and that’s just the way they are.
If you’re child is making negative comments about his or her self at this age, you can respond by telling them, “You have a beautiful body. It’s healthy for kids to have a tummy and what’s more important than what you weigh or look like, is how you eat, eating nutritious food, and being physically active.” My colleague, Julia V. Taylor has written a wonderful children’s book about body image called “Perfectly You”, which I encourage you to check out.
Stay tuned for Part II of our Q & A with Rosalind Wiseman tomorrow! If you have your own questions for Rosalind you can ask them live in Baltimore following her presentation, “Positive Parenting for A Health Self Image” on February 21, 2010, 1:00 – 3:00 PM at The Conference Center at Sheppard Pratt. Visit our Events page for more information about this free event and how to reserve your seat! Want to find out more about Rosalind Wiseman and her publications? Visit her website at www.rosalindwiseman.com.