Column: Cut the ‘fat talk’ in front of kids

January is a month choked with chatter about dieting and detox. Weight loss resolutions dominate conversations as the new year comes into its own and it is worthwhile to consider where these words might, in fact, have the greatest impact.

Last year, my pseudo-little-sister informed me that she would never be pretty because she was “fat”. Hearing that, my heart broke and I felt instantly culpable for her inaccurate perception of herself. Let me explain why.

I seek her opinion constantly because she has that breathtaking honesty that is the hallmark of childhood – and also because she is far, far cooler than me. I ask her if I look nice before I go out. If my outfit is nice and if I look fat. I don’t struggle with excess weight but I obsess about my shape relentlessly; it is not something I am proud of, by any stretch, but I never considered that I could pass my insecurities on to her. I have never felt more ashamed than I did in that moment, and I started to police my language around her from then on.

It is no great revelation that children as young as 10 are facing a worsening crisis around body image and self-esteem. Though the research available in Ireland is paltry, what has been done shows that as a nation we have a substantial problem regarding young people, their body image, and the pressures they face.

A unique study conducted in 2011 by the Dáil na nÓg Council showed that people between 10 and 21 strive to meet idealised standards of perfection; girls want to be thinner and boys want to be more muscular. Further, positive body image rapidly declines throughout the teenage years and negative body image is considerably more prevalent among girls.

In recent times we have witnessed a growing backlash against a media culture that promotes a dangerous concept of beauty that is damaging to girls who grow up assaulted with this concept daily.

Young people are not blind to this, they are acutely aware of the mirage the media is touting.

A 2008 government study on teenage mental health found that teenagers between 12 and 18 were aware that the media depiction of beauty was unrealistic and unattainable but it didn’t stop them from feeling pressured to emulate it. They felt that this standard, though ridiculous, was the barometer they were being measured against.

Despite valiant efforts by campaigns such as Miss Representation and the Not Buying It initiative, the storm of manipulated images and ever narrowing projections of beauty does not show any signs of dissipating.

The Dove Self Esteem Project harnesses the momentum behind this backlash to push its own agenda. Though the ‘real beauty’ campaigns are problematic for a host of reasons, the central message which encourages parents to “talk to your child before the media does” is noteworthy.

The importance of mentoring

The notion that children may be absorbing damaging ideas about their bodies and their appearance closer to home deserves attention. Participants in the 2008 study acknowledged the importance of mentoring and the role of friends and cousins in promoting positive mental health. The leap, therefore, between hearing adults discuss dieting and weight loss and a decline in positive body image is really not that large.

Curtailing ‘fat talk’ or diet talk is not an easy thing to do if it is something that plays on your mind but it is worth it in order to avoid teaching girls to grow up self-conscious.

When a young girl hears someone bemoan their thighs for being too big, too skinny, too lumpy or too cellulite-y, legs transform from being merely a body part that is useful for kicking, dancing, running and jumping to being something that needs to be critically evaluated on a rolling basis.

Avoid complaining about body dissatisfaction in front of children

This is not a novel concept but it is something that can easily slip past us unnoticed. In 2012 the UK government issued a guide advising parents to avoid complaining about weight and body dissatisfaction in front of children, in addition to critically examining airbrushed pictures of celebrities in magazines.

I am not a parent and I would never dream of lecturing someone who is one on how to do that job. I have spoken to several parents about this idea and most of them are mindful not to project their insecurities onto their children. They know how important body image is and they are loathe to drop the ball on it. But the responsibility doesn’t stop with parents; it also rests with siblings, babysitters, aunties, uncles, grandparents, family friends and everyone in between.

Laura Larkin is a freelance journalist and student at Dublin Institute of Technology.

If you would like to learn more about body image or eating disorders visit BodyWhys.ie.

Read: Minister welcomes industry concerns over children’s clothing and sexualisation

Lisa McInerney: Why are we so offhand about what’s influencing male body image?

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