How Young Can You Be and Hate Your Body?

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.

12 thoughts on “How Young Can You Be and Hate Your Body?

  1. 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!”

    my father, who is a marketing professor, says that the solution for this (which is not much in use and which both he and i wish *was* in use!) is to shift your marketing focus. we talked about this in regards to cigarette advertising, but it applies here, as well. cigarettes are legal for 18 year olds, right? so why not market to them? because when you do, you catch people on either side of that age range. which with the 20 year olds is fine, but not fine with the 15 year olds, since it’s not legal for them. however, if you’re marketing to 25 year olds, then you catch a few years above 25 and a few years below it. which leaves you safely above the legal age.

    it’s certainly legal to market raunch culture to 8 year olds; it’s just obscene. however, i think, as with cigarette marketing, a company *could* shift the age range they are targetting upwards, and still get the sales in the age ranges where this sort of product is a taste issue, while keeping eight year olds out of thongs.

    this does, however, reduce your sales some, but that’s a whole ‘nother corporate personhood/responsibility to the shareholders rant.

  2. From what I have been observing, from those whom I know personally & what I see in the media, no age is too young for body hatred & the obsessive need to be “good enough, thin enough”, etc. I know of at least once instance of a child, a baby really, of 2 1/2, who has already been hospitalized for treatment of anorexia. I know of examples of little ones of 5 or so being shown photos & picking whom they prefer, saying, “I like this one because he’s skinnier.” I know of children of 4 who have told their playmates at the table that they should leave some of their lunch, because “Mommy says that if you eat all your lunch, you’ll get fat.”

    I see food fears instilled in younger & younger children, attitudes of “healthism”, the belief that one knows what is right for others, that if one eats “right” & exercises, one is superior to those who presumably are NOT eating “right” or exercising, or at least exercising “enough.” I see all the “good food/bad food” dichotomy in this culture, even among many fat activists, the belief that there are some magical food with mystical health properties & the stubborn belief in “junk food”, when all foods have nutritional value & can be part of a perfectly healthy diet, when the properties of food complement each other, & when the only “should” about eating is that we “should” eat a good variety of foods from all food groups, & we “should” relax & enjoy our food & let go of guilt, & stop talking about something being “sinful” or a “guilty pleasure.” I’m sorry, folks, but killing 20 people is sinful, molesting children is sinful; eating a piece of chocolate just doesn’t make the grade.

    I happen to be fond of a lot of animated programs, so I sometimes watch what are supposed to be children’s networks. I see more & more negative messages about eating & body size. I see McDonald’s commercials where food is never mentioned, all we see is Ronald leaping around like a maniac, apparently suggesting that maybe 22 hours of exercise daily is enough. I see Nickelodeon doing a feature on “Nick News” about raising the “healthiest” generation of kids ever, showing not heads, but midsections of plump kids, with a voiceover of a girl of maybe 12 saying, “The hardest part of staying ‘healthy’ is avoiding temptation”, & you know the show is about a desire to get ALL kids THIN, & in the process create a lot more eating disorders & body image issues, yet more people who grow up hating their bodies, hating their own hunger, & fearing food. It becomes daily more pervasive & I think it is worse, because it is directed at kids, than those insane commercials which are now telling men that they are worthless & undesirable unless they too use moisturizers & dye their hair.

  3. Sigh… In my editing day job I sometimes edit or time code sales convention pep rally transcripts. The one that really sticks in my mind was denim-for-babies line that was being introduced (I won’t name the manufacturer, but I’m sure this sort of thing crosses all brands). The woman presenting the clothing held up a tiny denium dress for infants and amidst the audible “Awwwww!” from the mostly female sales staff, she described it a “cute and very girlish with the nipped-in waist.” These infants can’t even walk yet, and their parents envision them with sexually mature (and thin) figures. Sometimes words fail me.

  4. Peace.

    I truly stumbled across your website quite by accident and I had to leave a comment.

    I have never met you and by your work, I hope you are the strong and beautiful soul that you present yourself to be.

    I have “hated” my body as long as I can remember. There was surely a brief time in life where I felt no pressure about my size, but I would venture to say that at 28 years of age, I have been concerned about the way I developed for at least 21 years.

    I find it unfortunate that so much of the time, girls are brought to the dreaded reality of media and propaganda most often by their mothers. The powers that be would have you believe that there is a standard of beauty other than that set by the eye of the beholder, or that more people look one particular way than do the people who look like the ones you photograph…our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, best friends and perfect strangers…thank you for your perfect portrayal of the truth.

    One last thing…it was divine providence that I came across your website when I did. Two days ago, I was approached by a phenomenal photographer, asking to photograph me in the same light as your beautiful “Women Et Large” models…I will be liberated and immortalized on Monday, November 21st, 2005…

    Peace Manifest…

  5. My best wishes to you, Natural. I am sure that your photographs will be beautiful & I wish you a good journey to true self-love & complete comfort in & with your natural body. I could wish nothing better for all of us of all ages.


  6. Betsy, always useful to see a professional perspective on a political topic; I’ll remember that.

    Patsy and Lynne, just so!

    Natural, welcome! I hope being photographed is as wonderful for you as it was for me!

  7. Natural,

    I’m glad that the website was so well timed and helpful for you.

    Your comments and others like them are one of the things that really sustains us in this work. Thank you!

    Good luck with the shoot Monday. Let me know how it goes.


    We are really on the same wave length about this. When I give talks I say that “we do to food what the Victorians did to sex”. Guilty pleasures indeed. I don’t let remarks about “sinful chocolate” go by without comment.

    I’ll be blogging in the next couple of days about raising children in this body insane environment, so I’ll save the rest of my comments for then.


  8. Pingback: My Aim Is True
  9. I’m a teaching assistant at an early head start program. The age range at our school is 6 months to 5 years. And I can tell you that there is a very distrubing trend in the 3-5 year olds involving body image. They say that your view of the world is already shaped by the age of three, so it saddens me to see so many young girls already obsessing over their bodies. It also saddens me to see how sexualized they have already become before they even enter kindergarden. While I certainly see how the media has played a huge role in this, parenting seems to play the largest part at such a young age (granted, the parents, some of whom are still teens themselves, are directly targeted by media imaging as well). Parents often seem obsessed with having ‘beautiful babies’, which apparently means thin babies. Parents and teachers alike celebrate the loss of baby fat as a new sign of beauty. These are toddlers! They shouldn’t have to think about their bodies as a sculpture that must be molded to perfection.

    Of course it doesn’t help when most of the teachers in the school also hate their bodies and are participating in a city-wide competition among fellow teachers to “get healthy” by losing weight. This cylce has to stop. There’s no where else to go. If we are teaching our kids to hate their bodies before they can even walk or speak, we have some serious issues to work on as a society. Thanks for the post. I’ve only really got one ally at the school so its nice to hear others talking about the disturbing trend of marketing body image to young folks.

  10. vegankid,

    That is really _awful_. I didn’t realize that these obsessions had reached children as young as that. The repercussions for them and for society are hard to contemplate.

    I’m really glad they have you for a teacher – your work and example matter a lot.

    I agree- “this cycle has to stop”.

  11. I (male) dislike my body, but not so much as to care unless somebody brings up the topic. I don’t spend time improving it though, so hating it would be foolish. I just want to point out a statement you said includes an unnecessary reference to feminism.

    “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.”

    That is a basic truth in and of itself. If you spend time doing one thing, you cannot spend that time doing another.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.