What do our children see when they look in the mirror? How can we as parents ensure that they like what they see?
Anorexia and bulimia, disorders which are most associated with teenagers, are now being diagnosed in children as young as five. Therefore, it is crucial that we as parents encourage our children to love themselves and to define themselves by who they are and not how they look.
Being a parent in twenty-first century Ireland seems to be so much more difficult than it was twenty years ago. The media has become much more influential, with young children being exposed to thousands of advertisements relating to body image. However, it is all too easy to use the media as a scapegoat for the rise in eating disorders in young children. If we as parents want our children to develop a positive body image, we must ensure our children know how to love themselves.
My three year old daughter has been defined by her weight and her appearance from the moment she was born. At birth, Alison was 8lbs 4oz, ‘a fine weight’, and her skin was blemish- and eczema free. In the absence of a personality, this is how she was described. From about six months onwards, a phenomenon that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to as ‘The Mirror Stage’, Alison began to associate her reflection with herself. Henceforth, her appearance became an important part of her identity. She has been told by many people, including us her parents, that she is beautiful. Consequently, when Alison stands in front of the mirror, she likes what she sees.
Furthermore, Alison’s obsession with Disney princesses, especially the heroines of Frozen, Elsa and Anna, has greatly moulded her perception of what defines beauty. When she twirls around in Elsa’s trademark dress, her imagination allows her to become Elsa, Queen of Arrandale with flawless skin, perfectly groomed hair and ridiculously petite physique. Disney is renowned for their formulaic composition of the stereotypical princess, and despite the rise of feminism, Disney princesses continue to equate beauty with being painfully thin and blemish free.
Although USA Today reported in September 2013 that it is the mother who has the biggest influence over their daughters’ body image, responsibility for the development of positive body images lies with both parents. According to an article by Margarita Tartakovsky entitled ‘Dads, Daughters and Body Image’, daughters who have healthy relationships with their fathers ‘tend to be more self-reliant, self-confident […] and less likely to develop eating disorders’. One advantage of having mothers in the workplace is that fathers are spending more one-on-one time with their children. Tartakovsky recommends that fathers use this time to play with their young children, thus boosting their self-esteem, as well as teaching them to question the unrealistic body images presented to them by the media.
As a mother, my priority is to raise a daughter who is rounded, and who learns to love herself as a person, not just in terms of her appearance. Sadly, not every mother shares my view. ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a toddler beauty pageant show in the US, in which pushy mothers shamelessly dress up their daughters in over-the-top costumes, apply makeup and fake tan and train them to compete with other toddlers for a prize. Psychologist Dr Allan Schwartz has criticised the show, saying that such shows ‘reinforce negative female body issues that result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia [among children].’ In addition, these pageants serve to sexualise our toddlers, which is unacceptable, argues Schwartz.
Thankfully, it seems that Ireland is not ready for toddler beauty pageants. Voicing her opinion in response to the cancellation of toddler beauty pageants in Belfast and Cork earlier this year, Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald agrees that the sanctity of childhood needs to be protected by the State. In March 2014, the Seanad unanimously passed a motion to ban all child beauty pageants in Ireland. Included in this motion was an appreciation of ‘the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture’ as well as a belief ‘that every effort must be made to protect children and childhood against sexualisation’. While Ireland may not be ready to embrace the absurdity that is the toddler beauty pageant, it cannot be denied that we have become a society obsessed by external beauty, and if we fail to challenge this, we run the risk of our children developing eating disorders in later life.
Ultimately, our children are not princes and princesses. They are unique individuals, who need to be allowed to explore who they are, both inside and out. Here’s how we as parents can promote the development of a positive body image, according to Margarita Tartakovsky and Elizabeth Ward, who is a dietician in the US:
- Be a good role model: refrain from saying things such as ‘I need to lose weight’ in front of your toddlers, and do not openly obsess about your toddler’s weight
- Encourage a healthy diet;
- Limit the amount of screen time. Discuss advertisements’ and programmes’ treatment of body image openly and honestly, and point out unrealistic portrayals of body image;
- Teach your child that everyone is unique, including in their appearance;
- Spend time playing with your child, which will boost their self-esteem. Exercise releases endorphins which promotes happiness.
- Focus on other attributes and talents other than appearance.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from 23 February – 1 March 2015. For more information on eating disorders in children, visit www.bodywhys.ie.