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Cultural Myths and the Loss of Body Esteem




Excerpted from
Real Kids Come in All Sizes : Ten Essential Lessons to Build Your Child's Body Esteem
By Kathy Kater

Children are born with confidence in their bodies. They trust their hunger and their appetites, and rightly so. How does this go wrong?

What forces undermine body esteem, create negative body image, and promote unhealthy eating? Most important, how can we prevent our kids from succumbing to these pressures? The more we learn about what places our kids at risk, the better prepared we will be to help them navigate their preteen and teen years with their body integrity intact.

A Culture Is Formed By the Stories Its
Children Are Told

Children hear many stories as they grow up. Ideally, these contain messages that reinforce what it takes to have a happy, healthy life. But unless your kids are extremely isolated, they live in an environment that will also expose them to tales that are not so wholesome. Among these is a set of six cultural myths that actively promote body-image, eating, and weight problems.

In today's media-driven culture, messages routinely instruct us and our children about what we supposedly have to have to be desirable, loveable, and therefore, happy, and how to get the necessary goods to achieve this. One subset of these messages provides lessons specifically about the look that is required for this, the body that is needed to achieve that look, and what to do to get that body. The fact that these directives are at odds with our basic biological nature and deeply conflict with what is needed for physical and emotional well-being is rarely discussed among grown-ups, let alone taught to children. Likewise, it is almost never explained to children that nearly all these messages exist to make money for someone.

Messages about looks are delivered to your children every day without discrimination. None include a label that says, "Warning: Messages regarding the look to have and how to get it are myths that may be hazardous to your physical health and quality of life." Instead, these storylines flow freely, without qualifiers or disclaimers. Neither you nor your children can escape them.

You may think that these messages come only from television, radio, magazines, and movies, and that you can protect your child by controlling your environment. I'm sorry to say this is not possible. Even if you carefully screen what comes into your home, these messages slide by on the sides of buses, beam down from billboards, pop up on computer screens, stare out from bigger-than-life photos displayed in store windows, and display themselves on the covers of magazines at your doctor's office and corner store. Glossy junk-mail messages creep into your mailbox, and flyers are stuck into your front door. The sheer quantity and prevalence of these messages is astonishing.

Experts who study the causes of eating disorders have determined that the accumulation of this set of messages has resulted in a whole new way of thinking about body appearance called the "thinness schema." The thinness schema means that most Americans agree with and identify with the following statements: Beauty is the primary project of a woman's life. A successful woman can and should transform and control herself through fashion, dieting, and rigorous exercise to conform to the desired lean look.

In my talks around the country, I find most people are offended by such superficial statements, at least in theory. But in practice, many of us have to admit we have become carriers of this ideal. Children learn the value of the right body and how to get it not only from the media but when they hear adults greet each other with, "You look great! Have you lost weight?" or, "She's so pretty-too bad about her size." They learn unintentional lessons as they watch us mount scales each morning and count calories each night, or as they see weight-conscious teachers drink diet sodas while skipping lunch They learn to personalize these messages at the first blush of puberty when well-meaning relatives warn, "Better watch out, you're getting a little pudgy," when teenage siblings complain, "My thighs are gross!" or when they learn that "fat pig" is the worst insult to be hurled on the playground. Even in doctors' offices, destructive messages are too often dispensed through charts that tell children they are over- or underweight, with no regard to other factors that may influence this number.

This chapter explains six prevalent cultural myths that promote the thinness schema and the unhealthy eating habits that accompany it. These myths are tall tales that wrap themselves around and through our lives. Originating only in the last four decades, they have now become so much a part of everyday American life that we hardly notice them, much less question their validity. But they are not benign fairy tales. Rather, they form the basis for much of the weight-obsessed, dieting-and-overeating, all-or-nothing, fat-phobic-but-growing-fatter-by-the-year phenomenon in our society. With the beliefs they teach so woven into the fabric of our lives, we should not be surprised when our smart, eager kids embrace these myths. As you become conscious of these damaging myths in the coming pages, you will also learn the antidotes kids need to resist unhealthy pressures and maintain body esteem via the lessons in part 2.

Myth: "Image is everything. It's not who you are, It's how you look that matters."

Most of us have taught our kids that beauty is only skin deep. We warn them not to judge a book by its cover. So how did the role of external appearance get so out of balance? It turns out there is another adage we have forgotten: One picture is worth a thousand words.

Pictures have been part of the human scene since the Stone Age. But in the early 1950s, a revolutionary age of pictures was ushered in by high-tech cameras, mass production, and mass media. Almost overnight, with programming funded by advertisers, television became affordable for the ordinary person. This period of postwar prosperity saw a huge increase in the publication of glossy magazines and mail-order catalogues. Fashion, beauty, food, home decor, and other themes were aimed particularly at women, most of whom were homemakers with unprecedented levels of disposable income.

To compete with television, the movie industry expanded, in turn fueling waves of star-studded magazines filled with glamorous shots of actors and actresses. Billboards filled with giant pictures began to replace small road signs along our highways. Between 1950 and 1960, visual-imagery rivals ferociously competed for advertiser and viewer attention with ever flashier, bigger, brighter, and more eye-catching appeal. The psychology of how to sell a product became a multibillion dollar industry. The power of a beautiful face and body to convince buyers they needed whatever was being sold created a frenzy of product competition.

I remember the 1950s calendars that Pontiac Motor Company distributed to my father for his automobile dealership-always with pretty women sitting on the hoods of shiny new cars, skirts blowing flirtatiously in a phantom wind. Before the 1960s, this kind of exposure to pictures of movie stars and models in everyday life was still the exception, not the rule. These special-looking people were exactly that: special. As a result, the visual standard against which people routinely compared their own and each other's looks was not unusual or glamorous beauty, but rather other ordinary people.

In today's world, with literally hundreds of glamorous models per day in our line of vision, it is hard to maintain our "ordinary" eye. This is even truer as the finished images that appear in mass media are not ordinary photos. Besides the sheer quantity of handsome men and beautiful women, the quality of their presentation has undergone a dramatic change as well.



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