superdumb supervillain: Healthier Me: Body Image and Media Literacy

Friday, April 29, 2011

Healthier Me: Body Image and Media Literacy

This post was written as part of Katja's Mission: Healthier Me Challenge.

Getting healthy is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, both from a physical and emotional perspective. I've come to believe that the physical self has much more of a correlation to the mental and emotional health than I had previously thought. A big part of me wanting to be healthier is to be a better role model. I'm trying to find a balance in my mind and body that I can pass down to my kids, so they will be more self-confident and independent.

At seven, Roo is very precocious and wants nothing more than to be a teenager. Lately, she's been asking me if she looks fat. I didn't expect her to be worried about her body image this early. She knows that I've been dieting lately and I wonder if that has impacted her self-consciousness. I try very hard not to whine about my appearance in front of the kids but I am sure she has noticed how I avoid being photographed and take an inordinate amount of time to get ready to go out because I hate the way I look in clothes. I don't want her to ever feel that way.

I want Roo to be more self-confident, physically, than I was growing up. I always thought I was clumsy, so I never wanted to play sports. Surprise, surprise: I'm actually pretty coordinated and strong. Not very graceful, necessarily, but not the lumbering oaf that I envisioned ever since a kid at day camp in NJ called me an elephant when I was running past him on the playground. That must have been fifth or sixth grade, not a particularly good time to be dressed down by a member of the opposite sex. I was convinced I was fat and unattractive, which in retrospect seems pretty ridiculous since I wore a size 3/4 at my high school graduation. Looking at old photos, it's obvious that most of my issues were in my own head. How can I keep my kids from going through that?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a special Healthy Media Images for Girls community event sponsored by the Girl Scouts of the Kansas Heartland. Katherine Schwarzenegger was there in support of her new book Rock What You've Got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who's Been There and Back and participated in a panel discussion about media consumption and body image. Katherine is the progeny of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver and a beautiful, poised 21 year old college junior. She spoke movingly about the importance of family and open communication in interpreting and counteracting disparate and potentially damaging media messages.

Her story and interest in empowering girls were moving but the emotional core of the event was the question and answer period. Girls ranging from about ten to college-aged told their stories of feeling ostracized for being different. Some had even been bullied. It was eye-opening and made me worry even more about what Roo will have to go through. Technology has moved so quickly in the years since she was born (the iPod is only a couple of years older than she is!) and more and more, kids are growing up intertwined with it. They're going to have even more to deal with than just playground taunts because the whole world is open to them– and vice-versa.

Now, more than ever, it's important for us to model healthy body images to our kids. We have to make sure that we're paying attention to what they're watching and seeing every day and keeping an open discussion about the media images that bombard them. Parents need to brush up on their own media literacy to improve their children's. Know what your own issues are and recognize them in your kids. Be aware of mixed signals that can confuse or influence behavior. Keep a running dialogue about your family's values and how they relate to what you see on TV or hear on the radio.

Since they started watching TV with commercials, I've made a point of explaining the concept of advertising to the kids. Just because something is on TV and looks amazing, doesn't mean it's really going to be fun. Roo rolls her eyes at me whenever I tell her what I like or don't like about her favorite shows. Just because someone says it's cool doesn't make it cool. I know it's probably like a broken record to her but I make a point of mentioning when a character is being too sassy or treating someone unkindly or spending too much time dwelling on boys or brand names. I do the same with Jasper, although I tend to bristle more at Roo's role models. It seems like they're all pop stars or models on Disney and Nickelodeon. It gives me hope when she latches onto something incongruous, like her love of PJ Harvey who definitely doesn't fit that mold.

How do you teach kids about media literacy and body image? What do you remember learning- right or wrong- from mass media as a child?


  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  2. Naomi I just stumbled this. I feel like I could write a whole post in this here comment box but I will try and restrain myself.
    I look back at pictures of when I was young and thought I was fat and it's unbelievable to me now that my self perception was so off. I'm also realizing the need for having not just a healthy body - but a healthy mind. My motivation for marrying the two is completely for my 5 year old daughter; she's very perceptive too and already talks about having the 'wrong' hair and wishes she had different clothes. I want to protect her, but I can't. I have to arm her and I have to be strong enough myself to teach her how.


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