Body Image Language: The Interpreter’s Task

Shannon says:

While I don’t consider myself one of those derided “helicopter parents,” I am unapologetically overprotective on the subject of body image.

I do my best to teach my two daughters to celebrate their beautiful and very different bodies just as they are. I talk about any problems of my own in terms of health, not moral failure. I do not hide my body, nor make excuses for it. And I stock my girls’ everyday lives with strong, confident women who talk about their bodies with practicality and humor, because I believe a positive body image is learned, like table manners or martial arts.

Though I’d rather avoid fashion or appearance talk, that wouldn’t be reasonable or responsible. As girls, my daughters are going to spend their lives being firehosed by negative media messages about their bodies, and hearing those messages from other people — especially their female peers. So, though in my girls’ daily lives, they rarely hear self-flagellating declarations like “I’m so fat,” “I need to lose weight,” or “I hate her; she’s so skinny,” I want them to hear those phrases sometimes, so we can talk about why women say things like that. We discuss how women have been conditioned to reject their bodies, and how we battle such mindsets.

Most of the time, I try to have my girls hear guilt-free and non-judgmental language instead:

  • “Yes, I know these jeans don’t fit, I don’t have an ass to hold them up. But I’m going to wear them anyhow. Can I borrow your belt?”
  • “Arrgh, this shirt doesn’t fit me any more. Now I have to get a different one!”
  • “No, I don’t like to run, because the sports bra that can tame my bosom has yet to be invented.”
  • “That dress looks great on you! I wish I could wear it, but I have a short torso, and it’s designed for long torsos like yours. But I wonder if it could be altered to fit me.”

I limit my girls’ exposure to body image-centric advertising, and teach them to analyze unrealistic body representations as best they can. If they insist on watching TV commercials, they know we’re going to talk about them. If my eldest wants to browse the grocery store tabloids, she’ll find herself answering–and sometimes asking–questions like these:

  • How is this ad trying to get you to spend money by making you feel guilty about your body?
  • Do you think that model’s image was digitally manipulated, and if so, how?
  • iWhy does that woman think eating a candy bar is so shameful?
  • Why do advertisers think all women care so much about calories?
  • Why is that woman encouraging people to join a commercial and medically unsupervised weight loss program?
  • Do you believe these “Before” and “After” photos, and what was so wrong with the “Before” anyhow?
  • Why are there so few female body types on TV and in these magazines, and why don’t we see more that look like you and me?

I consider the girls well-insulated, and well-equipped, as long as we stay local. But I recently took them on a road trip in which we visited female relatives and friends from ages fourteen through eighty. Remember, I said I wanted the girls to hear some of those self-hate body messages? On that front, we got a lot more than we bargained for.

Every woman we were with, without exception, condemned herself or others for body image “crimes.” I found myself in a state of constant interpretation, not just for my girls but for the women themselves. I tried to rephrase their declarations of body hatred or failure into ones of body positivity or at least body possibility. I gently asked them to consider why they felt the need to say such horrible things about themselves or others, tried to give them alternative ways to voice their concerns.

It wasn’t easy. An eighty-year-old aunt told us about her health troubles, and said she didn’t really deserve the physical therapy that could help her recover because she’d let herself get fat. Her granddaughter and I reassured her that she was loved and worthy, that gaining weight was not a crime, that if her current body shape was a problem for her health, then physical therapy and activity could only help, and she deserved to be strong, happy, and well. She seemed doubtful. My heart ached.

Another friend, a successful executive and one of the most traditionally top-to-toe beautiful women we know, let me know how disappointed she was in herself she when she gained weight after an injury. I encouraged her to give herself a break and focus on the healthy choices she could actually control, instead of worrying about her body at any one point in time. When she healed, and if it was that important to her, she could always take up exercising again.

My fourteen-year-old niece told us she was disturbed by the girls at her school who wore clothes that were too tight and gave them “muffin tops.” It was disgusting, she said. I asked her to consider if dwelling on the girls’ fashion choices made her happier or improved her life in any way, or indeed even affected it. Why was it wrong? Could she tell me? She couldn’t, though she seemed to re-evaluate a bit. (My ten-year-old found this exchange particularly fascinating.)

My aunt told me how distressed she was when she forgot her bathing suit. Her daughter offered a discarded maternity swimsuit — and it fit! I said that it sounded as though the maternity suit was working for her, and advised her to let herself enjoy swimming and not worry about the tag inside, because seriously — who cares? She seemed willing to consider that wearing a maternity bathing suit might not be the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

I wish I didn’t have to reassure such wonderful women that they are not lesser people because their bodies deviate from unrealistic, manufactured ideals. I especially hate having my daughters discover that even strong women fall prey to our culture’s expectations of female self-loathing. I would prefer to teach my girls that being comfortable with your body is not the same thing as not caring about it or neglecting it, and that it’s unhealthy to waste emotional energy on body image daydreams. But if my girls are to survive this culture that is so desperate to have them grow up hating themselves, I have to remain vigilant on all fronts.

(We’re delighted to have Shannon des Roches Rosa guest blogging here. You can find more of her writing at the link at the top of this post, as well as at Squidalicious and Can I Sit With You?.)