Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Teaching Kids about Healthy Attitudes Towards Beauty, Health, and Weight

Audrey Hepburn, our "beauty standard"
I think one of the hardest things about being a parent is trying to find the middle ground, to raise your kids with appropriate attitudes towards different things instead of falling to either extreme. I want to raise emotionally healthy children, with a healthy sense of self and self image, as well as with a good attitude towards health and wellness. I want my children to be happy with themselves, to love themselves and everything about them, yet at the same time, always work on being the best "them" that they could possibly be.

I've written before about my desire to lose weight, and fortunately I've made progress, to the point where I am definitely in the healthy weight range, and aesthetically much better than before (I'm no longer regularly getting asked if I'm pregnant), but at the same time, I would like to lose more weight. Not a lot- my goal weight is about 15-20 lbs away from where I am now (I lost about 25 lbs already)...
The other day my son asked me if I am able to eat dairy. I told him that the answer is complicated. He wanted to know more. Question followed question, and eventually I told him that I can eat goat dairy, but I don't want to, because I want to lose weight.

"But what's wrong with how you are now, Mommy? You're not fat," my 7 year old Lee wanted to know.

That question was a toughie, and it scared me.
Because there is nothing wrong with how I am now. Yes, I am overweight, according to the BMI, but not by too much. I look good. I just want to look even better. I don't want my kids to think that there is something "wrong" with them if they're less than perfect, because no one is perfect. And I don't want my kids to think that someone skinny is better than someone fat. I don't want my kids to think that someone's value is connected to how they look. And I worried that maybe what I was doing might be harming my kids.

So that made me do a lot of thinking.
And though we generally tend towards unschooling, I put together a lesson plan to hopefully try to teach my kids healthy attitudes about beauty, health, and weight loss. Hopefully it'll help someone else here- maybe you can use it with your kids as well.

I started out by showing my son pictures of what is considered beautiful around the world, and/or at various points in time, including:

Bound feet...

Lip plates...

Stretched necks...

And chiseled teeth...

I asked him if he thought that these things were beautiful, and he said no. I told him that everyone has a different idea of what beautiful is, and there is no right or wrong answer, and that these are examples of things that different cultures consider/considered beautiful.

I told him that in the past, for example, heavier women were considered more beautiful, but today society considers skinny people more beautiful.

A Ruben painting. (One of the few fully clothed.)
I explained how today's society's views of beauty are very much affected by the media, because the more often we see something and hear people saying that that is what beautiful, the more it starts to change our perception and make us think that's true, even if it isn't what we want to believe. I explained that what they constantly show in movies, shows, advertisements, and catalogs as beautiful is both fake and constantly changing.

I gave him the example of plastic glasses being considered cool and pretty in the 70s, then ugly and dorky when I was a kid (I had some that I refused to wear since I would have been made fun of), and then now it's considered cool and pretty again.

I also showed him some pictures of celebrities that are considered to be beautiful, and asked them if he thought they were beautiful. He said yes. I then showed him the same celebrities, sans photoshop, sans make up, and asked him if he thought they were pretty. He said that they weren't. He was shocked to learn that it was the same person, and what a difference make up and computers can make.
I then showed him a video of how photoshop is used to transform models into something unnatural, which they then call "beautiful"- there are many such examples of videos (here's one).

I then discussed with him about how the media showing unnaturally super skinny women as what is beautiful makes people try to lose weight soooo much that they end up starving their body, not getting the nutrition they need, and some people even die from that.
I explained that at the other end of the spectrum, though, you can be too overweight and that can also be dangerous and you can also die because of that.
And the goal is to be healthy, not too fat and not too skinny, but to take care of your body and be as healthy as you can be.

I explained that in life, if you go to one extreme or the other, you'll get hurt. I gave an example of riding a bike- if you lean too much to one side you'll fall over. If you lean over to the other side too much, you'll fall over. Only by staying in the middle and not leaning to either side, at least not too much, can you stay healthy.

I explained that in regards weight, you want to be healthy, and that means not being too skinny or too fat, but the middle ground- not to either extreme... and that means that you should eat healthy food, enough to get enough nutrition, but not overeat. And that you should exercise as well.

I told my son how as much as I don't want to be affected by what the media is telling me is beautiful and what women should look like, it does have an effect on me, and while that isn't a good thing, it is a fact. And I'm trying my best to not pay attention to the beauty standards of the media.

I reinforced what my son already knew- that what truly matters is what is on the inside, how we act and what we do, and not what we look like, and that there are evil beautiful people and ugly good people..
At the same time, I mentioned that we still should take care of our body and hygiene, make an effort to look decent, wearing clean clothes that look presentable, as a matter of self respect, and because it is a positive thing to try to look pretty for our spouses.

I concluded that we should be appreciative of our bodies that we have, take care of them, and be the best "we" that we can, and not compare our bodies or our looks to other people.

I'll be honest- this is a complex lesson, and I'm not sure most 7 year olds would be able to understand it, but fortunately my 7 year old did. And even if a kid doesn't understand all these aspects, some of them seeming like contradictory things, at least its a starting point for future discussions.

I'm sure this isn't the only discussion I'll ever have with my children on beauty and weight, but hopefully with this basis, we'll be able to expand more.

How do you find a healthy balance with your children (and yourself) regarding healthy attitudes towards beauty, health, and weight? What have you taught your children about that? For those of you with older children, do you think your method of teaching them about these stuff has paid off? Do you have any regrets? What would you do differently if you could?


  1. Replies
    1. Brave to bring up and openly discuss such a difficult and complex subject with your seven year old son :)

    2. Thank you. I make a policy to answer any question my kid has as best as I can.

  2. I think you did an awesome job. My daughter is only two and I'm trying to be the best role model I can be. Despite what I think, at two she thinks my body is perfect and that I'm beautiful. She thinks that she's perfect and beautiful too.

    I don't want her to see my insecurities. I don't want her to think she needs to straighten her hair or cake on makeup to be beautiful. I don't want her to think that she has to starve to be appreciated.

    I'm not sure what I want her to learn about looking nice for our spouses or even how to value beauty. But hopefully by the time she asks me about it I'll have half as good of an answer as you were able to give!

    1. Btw, when I say "looking nice" I don't mean sexy or sexual things at all. I just mean that my kids already have noticed that sometimes, if I'm having a lazy day where I'm in my PJs, I'll get dressed and put on something decent before my husband gets home. They've asked why I do that, and I told them its a good thing to look nice for your spouse. :-D If it doesn't come up, maybe you don't need to say. But I'd rather say that then have my kids think its good to look pretty for the opposite sex, even before marriage, etc... IMO an extra effort should be made for spouses, but not for the opposite sex before they're interested in marriage. And for the record, I told them it applies equally to men and women- not that only women should pretty up for their husbands, but husbands should also pretty up for their wives.
      And yes, I personally do think its admirable to look nice for your spouse... :-D Feel free to have a different opinion on that.

  3. I think you did a great job of touching all the important aspects of beauty and how it can be affected by mass media. It is so hard to make sure kids understand all the pressures that people face with beauty and how unreal the media really is. I am impressed at how you handled this and were able to explain a lot through pictures and media in general. :)

    1. Thank you. At first when he asked that question, I nearly panicked, because I thought I must be doing something wrong- because I dont want him to think that I think there's anything wrong with me! This is what I came up with after a lot of thinking...

  4. I think you gave your son a wonderful lesson. I was surprised you told him that you struggle with wanting to look even more thin, even though you are of healthy weight now - but kids are smart and can understand a lot, and it is the best to be honest with them. Bravo for your efforts, it would be so nice if all parents gave so much thought on answering their children's questions.

    1. One thing I try to do with my kids is to be a good role model, show them how I am working on myself, so that they also can understand that it is important to work on themselves. Therefore, if there's something I'm struggling with, and its not something I'm ultra uncomfortable sharing with them, I'll tell them- so they can see that just like Mommy works on herself, so should they. And I should clarify- while I'm not overweight to the point that it would cause me health issues, I have a LONG way to go before I'd be unhealthily skinny. For my height and build, the "ideal weight" is 150-165 lbs. I have no desire to be 150 lbs. Thats not even my goal. My goal is 165 and that's it. My kids won't see me starving myself, because I dont... The only thing they will see is maybe me turning down a food I like that I don't need, while eating plenty other delicious and healthy food. But I don't think its necessarily bad for my kids to hear that yes, even I, knowing what the media does, am still influenced by the media ideals and therefore I want to be skinnier, even though there's nothing "wrong" with how I am now. Not sure I'm making any sense. Am I?

  5. Did you know that Audrey Hepburn had that tiny waist and slim figure because she literally STARVED during WWII? Her stomach never truly recovered.

    1. Crazy that that;s what society bases its beauty norms on. Starvation.

  6. What a fantastic lesson! And kudos to Lee for understanding. He'll make a fine adult.As will your other kids.

    My grown daughter now lives in an area where women are far more concerned with how they look and it puzzles her no end. (She grew up in rural PA. In her new home, for example, women go to the hairdresser every week and she hasn't seen a single grey-haired lady! she wondered where all the older women went.) Luckily her husband doesn't care so long as she's happy and comfortable.

    1. I also grew up in rural PA. And now I live in So. Cal. So I can relate!

    2. Thank you Annemarie! I hope so!
      Yea- its hard living in a place where you're the only person with your values...

  7. Very well said, Penny. I work in fashion and I think I went into it because I wanted to change things. Unfortunately, what I have learned is that for every person in the fashion industry who perpetuates unhealthy body stereotypes, there are just as many if not more who wish it wasn't so. The matter has a lot to do with who is in a position of power. In that regard, I think it has more to do with the entertainment industry than with print (though many models are an unhealthy BMI) because movies and music are the leaders in style and fashion follows whatever is "popular." I'd venture to say this has a lot to do with the fact that there is a HUGE lack of female leadership in the entertainment industry.

    I'm not sure if I am allowed to post a link in the comments but I read an article about it recently that was fascinating. According to this article, for the "top 2014 films, 93% were directed by males." There's a whole list of jobs and the large majority of them are filled by men. It's no wonder women are over-sexualized and given unrealistic beauty ideals.

    I love how you approached it by showing what other cultures think is beautiful. The only thing I would add (and I think you would agree) is that nothing is beautiful if it unhealthy. Like the foot binding which made it impossible to walk, or neck rings which make their neck muscles so weak they could not live without them (their necks would break and their heads would fall over from the weight of their own heads. Gruesome.

    I think what you said about being healthy is wonderful and I agree that it's a good idea when you have a spouse to be presentable for them. It has nothing to do with standard of beauty and everything to do with showing respect and love for the person you are with. It can be for you just as much as it is for them. That's what I took away from what you said about that part.

    This is by far my favorite post of your personal (non-cooking, money-saving type) posts. Thanks for sharing!

    1. So glad you liked this post. Yea- I would/should add that beauty shouldnt be unhealthy- that health comes first. Yea, dressing up for your spouse is a) about self respect b) about respecting your spouse and c) about enhancing your relationship. It doesnt feel like for a person to see his/her spouse only in slovenly clothes, but when they "go out" they dress up "for the world". If you're gonna dress up for someone, let it be for the ones you love, not for the strangers on the street.

      So interesting about what you said about the reason for the fashion/media industry being like it is- dictated by men...

  8. Good for you for starting Lee off early! Kids should know about positive body image and it's a lesson that has to be taught throughout the years as your thoughts get more complex. No more just "fat" and "skinny". This article is a great resource to put what "ideal" body types are into perspective. http://greatist.com/grow/100-years-womens-body-image

    1. Thank you! Totally appreciating that link!

  9. Can you hear that?? I am giving you a STANDING OVATION! ;) I think you did an amazing job! I work with teenagers and it breaks my heart that so many of them have distorted body images and no self-esteem! Makes me so sad....Thank you for starting young!

  10. Very inspiring article. Thank you for sharing. My mother tried to make sense of the world for us as best she could and I hope to be able to do that for my children. Sometimes, the answer that comes to mind first can be so misleading.
    Great job Penny!


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