I get lots of questions from parents asking how to help their kids have a positive body image and high self-esteem, and I get questions from people asking about how to help friend with body image and food issues.
I keep thinking of the flight attendants and their pre-flight safety speech – “put on your oxygen mask before you help your travel companion with theirs”. Because if you can’t breathe, you’re not in a position to help anyone else.
I think it’s the same with self-esteem and body image issues, and I think that there are two really good places to start:
Realize what’s happening
I think that the way to combat the subconscious programming that happens when hundreds of thousands of images are coming at us all the time is with intentional consciousness. For me it was about becoming very clear that this standard of beauty is arbitrary and that the people who are pushing it are generally using it to make me feel bad about myself as a way to convince me to buy their product. I think it was my brilliant friend CJ Legare who I first heard put it this way: They are trying to take our self-esteem from us and sell it back at a profit. Just say know – know that horrible body image isn’t an accident, it’s the result of a highly profitable marketing campaign. Know that the machine that oppresses us runs on our time and money and energy and so we can make it stop by taking away the fuel.
End Negative Body Talk Starting with Our Own Mouths
We can just stop. Stop engaging in negative body talk of any kind – whether it’s overt (“she’s way too thin, she needs to eat a sandwich”, “at that weight she’s obviously not healthy”) or subtle and said as if it’s a compliment (“She has the perfect body… We hate her…”, “you lost weight- you look so good…”) We can choose never to put someone else down to make us feel better: Even if they’ll never know, it still usually ends up effecting us negatively in the end. Whether you are a thin person who wants to create a body positive world, or a fat person who wants to live by the golden body rule, and not by the rule that the road to self-esteem is paved with blatant hypocrisy, or somewhere in between, may I suggest that talking badly about someone else’s body is just never the way to go.
While we are at it, we can notice how we deal with our own bodies. When we reject a culture of self-hate and put on our own body love mask first, we let other people know that loving their bodies is an option. On the other side of the coin, every time we choose to talk out loud about how we hate this or that about our bodies (“I love my body, I just don’t like my…”), we add to the cacophony of body hate that already exists and we model body hate to other people, especially any young people who are listening. In talks that I give I’ve spoken to middle school girls who have told me that they’ve never, in their lives, met an adult woman who wasn’t trying to lose weight, and that terrifies me for their prospects of them ever loving their bodies. We can do better for ourselves and our kids. If you’re struggling with how to say nice things about your body, try this!
There is one way that our metaphor of the flight mask breaks down: On a flight we really can help someone put on their mask. When it comes to body positivity it’s not so simple – we can give the option, and then people will make a choice for themselves. If we chose body positivity, then we show everyone around us that Body Positivity is an option that they can chose. If we put our own mask on first, then the person beside us may decide to put on theirs or they might not. That’ s not our choice to make. What’s important is that either way, we’re breathing.
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