The Varied Beauty of Being Human

By Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director Childpeace Montessori School

Body image is a loaded topic, isn’t it? As adults, most of us carry some baggage of inferiority and discomfort from our life experiences, messages we’ve received about what’s right, beautiful and normal that are different from what we see in the mirror. We aim to raise our children to be free of this. Like so many social things, eventually it’s not something that parents and educators can control for their children. The larger society forces its culture on children for better and for worse. You have probably chosen Childpeace, in small or large part, because there’s some assurance that your child will be nurtured to feel positively about their unique body and unique abilities, and accepting of others different from them while at school. Influences from other hours in the day are also a factor: media on screens and out the car window and in stores, characters in books, even the news hour all weave their impressions of body image into the developing brains of our children.
Last week’s screening of Miss Representation was a powerful look at the negative effects of advertising and narrow media coverage of women. It shared a convincing message that girls’ body images invariably end up victims of media. There is a huge lack of varied role models, and so the stereotypes (and attendant negative self-images of females) continue into the next generation. (This Friday we’ll be screening The Mask We Live In, addressing similar issues for males). There is the driving profit-motive of media that has lead to a hyper-manipulation of what we (and our children) are exposed to -- an “anything that gets attention” attitude. The film called for actions such as calling out offensive media, challenging stereotypes, educating society about misrepresentation and supporting more reasonable portrayals of females. This is not enough when you are raising the next generation.
We can talk directly with our children about how the media equates thinness with everything positive. Currently in our society, if your child carries average to heavier weight she’ll have more challenges with body image. This link offers some good suggestions to nurture a healthy attitude for that body type. (A few tips in the article are to focus on fitness; be a good role model; reject deprivation; and rethink your views). We can educate them about how photoshop techniques are used to manipulate images. Having a conscious awareness that so many aspects of “photos” we see are fabrications, not reality, is a helpful tool for interpreting those images.
We can refrain from making comments about other people’s bodies; persistently hearing such comments teaches kids that it’s important to judge people’s looks. Children who have a slimmer build (in line with the “perfect” image) also suffer from comments, because they are put in positions of having to defend themselves from being objectified. Wouldn’t we rather have them internalize that being attractive to others is a combination of kindness, helpfulness, good humor and stimulating conversation? 
Most importantly, we can model acceptance of and gratitude for our own bodies; our own body image is something that our children encounter every day in subtle ways. Beauty is a good thing in the world, and it is as varied as the number of humans on the planet.  It’s surprising how hard it can be to actually live out this truth, and yet how integral it is for our children.