How to help children struggling with body image, dieting | Opinion

On my morning commute to work, I pass multiple advertisements calling me to lose weight, eat “clean” diet foods, start botox injections or get plastic surgery.

I look at them and scoff or make a joke — they’re ridiculous, right? But I pass the same messages on my way home.

No matter my weight or age, the messages are undiscriminating, teaching me that my physical appearance is what I should spend most of my time, effort and money on. I’m learning to unlearn the messages, but I believed them when I was younger.

And the messages are multiplied and amplified through social media. We echo them when we make offhanded comments about our bodies not being “in shape” as if we were all made to fit one mold despite our diversity in personalities, interests, skills, humors and cultural heritages.

I don’t fault any woman for feeling body shame or dissatisfaction. How can we not? We feel the weighty expectations of the “beauty ideal” constantly.

How many children already feel the pressure to cut out sugar, count calories or stare with worried fixation at their mirrored selves and wish for different bodies? According to a study conducted in 2018, 60% of 10-year-old girls want to be skinnier.

When we raise girls on the message that their first concern should be their appearance, they grow into women with stolen time, energy and money consumed by a culture of dieting, body sculpting and weight cycling.

In 2018, Americans spent a collective $16.5 billion on cosmetic plastic surgeries, with 313,735 breast augmentation procedures — the most common cosmetic surgery that year. In 2020, nose reshaping rose to the top with 352,555 surgeries. But judging those who opt for cosmetic surgeries would be blaming the targets of lifelong, nonstop advertising and messaging around the ever-changing “appearance ideal.”

What can we do to change the messaging?

The advertising campaigns won’t go away. We’ll always pass the billboards boasting of “freezing your fat” — or your face. The market is too lucrative for those who want to make money off of our body insecurities.

We need to amplify new voices in the conversation. If we can’t take down the billboards, those of us who care about the rising generation need to make a better, healthier message clearer — for the 10-year-olds worried about weight loss, and for every woman or man who feels that his or her body is not enough.

Instead of comments about guilty pleasures, earned treats, compulsive exercise and self-degrading jokes about the sizes of our noses, can we own the narrative that we love to eat our favorite foods — no matter their sugar content — we love to move but also rest when we need it, and we love our body diversity?

Children are listening, and our voices matter for them as well as for ourselves. Research shows that children copy what they observe adults doing and saying as an important part of their own development.

And children pick up on our language around food and bodies, too.

In an interesting Dove beauty campaign video, mothers were asked to list the parts of their bodies they wished they could change and the parts they liked about themselves. Then their daughters were asked separately to list the parts of their bodies they did and didn’t like. Unsurprisingly, but tragically, the daughters had listed the same insecurities as their mothers.

But the good news is that their daughters also listed the same things they loved about their bodies as their mothers had. Our influence on how others see their bodies can be what we choose to make it — positive or negative.

In Utah, two sisters saw the need for louder, clearer voices on body acceptance, love and appreciation. They wrote a book, “More Than a Body,” to empower women to push back against objectification culture. BYU students lead groups in the Body Project program to help young women counter the negative effects of the appearance ideal.

There are voices out there, and we can join them.

What could women do if we had our extra time back — if we didn’t have to worry about our body shapes and weights at 10 years old and through the rest of our lives? What could we give to the world in innovation, problem solving and creativity? We can break the cycle of negative self-talk if we challenge the messages we’ve been told to say and start new conversations about our bodies.

Brooklyn Hughes Roemer is a writer and editor for the Deseret News and currently lives in Taylorsville.

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