Promoting Positive Body Image in Pre-Teens
I am a big fan of the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral and I particularly like Kristin Scott Thomas’ role as the rather uptight Fiona . I love the part where she sits down to a wedding reception table and the woman next to her asks:
[at second wedding]
Mrs. Beaumont: Are you married?
Mrs. Beaumont: Are you a lesbian?
Fiona: Good lord! What makes you ask that?
Mrs. Beaumont: Well, it is one of the possibilities for unmarried girls nowadays, and it’s rather more interesting than saying, “Oh dear, never met the right chap,” eh?
Fiona: Quite right. Why be dull?
Mrs. Beaumont: Thank you.
I don’t really know why I thought of that, but it came to me as a I was having a conversation with my eldest about body image. In my head I substituted the word average for dull.
A few months ago a letter was sent home from school to say that they would be doing the National Child Measurement Programme for Year 6 pupils, I believe it is in part linked to the Change 4 Life campaign, which I am fully in support of. I am not, however, in support of getting my daughter weighed and measured in front of her peers. I rang up and withdrew my consent for her participation in this exercise.
My daughter and I had a chat and I outlined my reasons for her not being weighed and measured at this time. Firstly, I knew that she wouldn’t be comfortable with the process, she is bigger than her friends and I didn’t want her to feel singled out in any way (although I suppose her not being involved could just as well draw attention!) Secondly (and this was fully borne out by the experience of her friends on the day) the whole process relates to averages.
On the day that everyone got weighed, she came home and informed me that ‘The average 11 year old weighs 6 stone.’ We both know that she doesn’t weigh 6 stone, in fact I’m not sure how much she weighs as I make a point of not weighing her. I asked her how that made her feel and she said ‘Well I weigh more than that, I’m not the average!’ She was a little concerned, but then we discussed it a bit further. I asked her what shoe size her friends wore and she said it varied between a 1 and a 4. I then asked her what she thought the average shoe size was and she said probably a 3. She takes a size 6.5 shoe, so I pointed out that she doesn’t meet the average there. We both agreed that this was mainly positive as it meant she could only buy ‘grown-up’ shoes and also that she could also borrow my shoes too. We then moved on to height, she is taller than almost all of her friends, so again, not the average and in terms of body shape she has a very mature shape when compared to girls of her age. She thinks this is a positive as people often think she is older. I’m not such a fan as I want to keep her my little girl for a bit longer!
We concluded that she was not average in any way, shape or form (pardon the pun!) We finished our conversation wondering how she could be average weight, if her height, shoe size and general physique didn’t meet the so called average. And this is precisely why I didn’t want any intervention at this age. She is 11 and yes, she is incredibly mature, but she is also getting to the point where she is becoming more conscious about her own body and how it corresponds to other girls of her age. I do everything in my power to boost her body image, because I feel very strongly that she needs to learn not to measure herself against anyone, and certainly not an average. I tend to put the emphasis on being healthy and athletic as opposed to striving toward any particular body shape.
She told me that sometimes she feels uncomfortable because she is taller or her feet are bigger or her body is more developed and I said ‘Yes, but why be average though?’ I carried on ‘ Look at the supermodels, they were probably really tall at school and used their height to have amazing catwalk careers, had they been average they wouldn’t have stood a chance. Sportsmen and women don’t get to the Olympics by being average and actors, artists and musicians excel in the arts through not being average.’ In the same vein of the comment from the Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral ‘Why be average?’ One day in the not too distant future her friends will catch up with her and for a time she will be considered ‘average’, but I hope that she has the strength to be extraordinary because I believe we are all different and special. None of us are ever really average, we are all so diverse and different and that is what makes the world so interesting.
I’m not against Change 4 Life, because I think that it’s important that we all adopt healthier eating habits and take more exercise. As a population we are getting bigger and it’s not just the effects it could have on our future health, but also how it affects our overall well-being and mental health. I just think that there is a different approach needed and that is mainly because of what happened next at school.
Following the weight and measurement exercise letters were sent home from school. Unfortunately the letters were addressed to the children themselves. At least three children (that I know of) opened the letter, to find it stated in black and white that they were ‘overweight’ The mothers of those children were mortified, how do you start undoing something like that? If it had been my daughter, I would have been fuming. I think at this age (or indeed any age!) there needs to be a subtle approach to weight and body image. Our children are still growing, so the idea of labelling them like this seems to be setting up some issues for the future.
I don’t want food to be an enemy and seen as bad or good, I want it to be seen as fuel first and foremost and then something that can be indulged in, in moderation. I also want exercise to form part of both my daughters’ lives more because they love it, than they feel they have to do it to achieve a certain body shape. I’m not suggesting that the Change for Life programme does this, but I do think that young people receive a lot of mixed messages about weight and health. I’m not quite sure what the answer is, it’s still a work in progress. Although anyone with pre-teens and teens knows that the building of a positive body image and self image is an ongoing process! Let’s face it some of us are still working on our own body image into our thirties, forties and beyond! Good luck to all of us x