Following up on our “Passing the Torch” post last week, we’ve been thinking about the social pressures on children, specifically with regard to body image and physical self-esteem.
What goes into the truism that this situation is getting worse and worse? We’ve identified several factors:
The ages at which children are encouraged to think of their bodies in terms of beauty, attractiveness, and sexuality is getting lower and lower. This is fueled by marketing (on television and elsewhere), by parents with weight/body issues, and by schools, as well as other factors.
The pressures on adults to be thin and forever young are well understood; what’s not so obvious is that as the airbrushed unreal early pubescent body becomes the image of the adult model, this puts pressure not only on the three-dimensional, unPhotoShoppable adult, but also on the child whose idealized body is being co-opted. If mommy wants to look like a twelve-year-old, what is a twelve-year-old supposed to want? And what will “trickle down” to her five-year-old sister?
Another pressure on children (of both sexes) stems from exactly the same source as the comparatively new body image pressure on men. The advertising culture has completely saturated the market for women’s self-hatred. Any new product marketing to that segment has to push out an existing product. This is harder than marketing to an untapped group, so both men and children now get a lot of direct self-hatred sold to them in the form of products that claim to be able to counteract those feelings. Even ten and certainly fifteen years ago, toys were usually the only things marketed to children. Now the advertising industry has created the new category known as the “tween,” to which it constantly markets clothing, food, and beauty and health products, as well as toys and games.
One aspect of this, which we’ve discussed before, is the marketing of sexy clothing and raunch culture. Whether or not this is a problem in regard to seventeen-year-olds is an open and interesting question; whether or not it’s a problem for eight-year-olds seems to both of us to be an obvious and resounding “Yes!” Left to their own devices, children will reject images of adult sexuality until an age when they’re ready to address those images; marketing raunch to them both pushes the issue and caters to predators. (We don’t have to go into what’s wrong with that, do we?)
At the same time, a huge percentage of schools have bought into the “obesity epidemic” bullshit, and are (in effect) marketing self-hatred and fear of food to children (at the same time that school cafeterias have been taken over by Coca-Cola and candy).
All of these newer, better, stronger sources of body hatred (more from parents, more from TV set, and more from school than ever before!) add a huge new dimension to the role of beauty obsession in political life. It’s a basic truth of feminism that the time and energy you spend making yourself “acceptable” in looks and appearance (or beating yourself up because you’re not) is time you can’t spend on activism, changing the world, or improving your own real conditions. Increasing the size of the group that spends its time and energy this way limits even further the power of activism. Men, who already have to fit themselves into a horrendously narrow channel to be “real men,” now also spend more time on bodies, attractiveness, and muscle-building. Children and teenagers (and tweens!) of all genders who are brought up to obsess about their bodies from age six (or whatever age) will have to do a lot more work on themselves if they’re going to get away from that trap and into any path that will actually make them happier, let alone effect any social change.