• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Breaking the Beauty Talk Cycle

Culture and values.

June 21, 2017

I’ve been spending much time over the years thinking how to raise children with healthy body images within an image-obsessed culture that too often promotes unrealistic beauty ideals. It hasn’t been easy. Studies on the dangers of obesity abound. Yet, studies on the risks of body shaming are also plentiful. Often, the two sets of studies result in a competing desire to make sure your children are not eating too much while avoiding implying to them that they are.

I’ve looked for books that can teach my children about beauty myths, but there is not much for a young audience. Most of the books directed to their age focus on diet, eating, and wellness. The American Girl franchise’s book on liking yourself emphasizes individual decisions rather than the ways culture influences how we see ourselves. Other books, for girls at least, focus on positive role models. Strong Is the New Pretty has a pictorial presentation on girls accomplishing various feats, but the best part of the book is what it doesn’t talk about: competing images girls receive from the media. I haven’t really found any books focusing on ideologies of beauty that are written for the 8-10 year-old market. In my ideal world, Naomi Wolf would refashion The Beauty Myth for the pre-adolescent market. In the meantime, it’s been left to me to try to explain beauty myths and then reconcile why I dye my hair rather than letting it remain grey (age myths) and shave my legs (woman beauty expectations).

My first effort to avoid body shaming was to ban all negative body talk in the house. This experiment didn’t really work, because what I hadn’t realized was how damaging the positive body talk can be as well. In complimenting someone on their hair or how they look in a certain outfit, it sends the message that appearance matters and implies that when you do not offer a compliment, it might be a day when you do not look as well. Also, moments focused on image steals away time when we could talk about what someone thinks, or how someone’s day went.

Our new plan has been to ban body talk of all kinds in the house, whether someone might see it as a compliment or not. This has made a huge difference in our lives. I can’t say whether it is helping anyone’s self-esteem because I can’t figure out how to measure that, but I can say it’s opened up our minds to how often we unknowingly spent time focused on our bodies instead of our minds. Now, we stop ourselves, police ourselves, and we’ve changed the focus of our conversations. Just this morning, my daughter and I debated whether saying someone’s dress looked pretty was a form of body talk. The answer is less important than the fact that we are asking that question.

I recently read Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women by Renee Engeln. Engeln picks up where Wolf leaves off, writing about what happens when a culture continues to be obsessed with beauty. She interviews girls and women and discusses what she calls “Beauty Sickness,” which she describes as an unhealthy focus on how your body looks at the expense of feeling good about your body. She makes an interesting suggestion to refocus discussion on not what your body looks like, but how your body works for you and what it does for you.

I’m not naïve to think that my children, especially my daughters, won’t receive messages about their bodies from their peers, but I do think that they can now contextualize the remarks. When people visit our house and comment on someone losing weight, we are all polite, but at the same time we give each other a knowing smile now. Later, after they’ve left, we look at each other and say, “body talk.” We then move on and talk about something else.



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