My favorite guy guest-writer opines about one of my favorite topics du jour: body issues and how to deal with it as parents. Chris is wise and hearing from the male side of the aisle is always interesting and helpful. And on this one, Chris does not disappoint.
The Unmanageable Body Image
by Chris, guest blogger
Many of us struggle our entire lives with body-image issues, mostly involving shame, embarrassment, or simply wishing contrary to fact and reason that some feature was different. How, as parents, can we hope to give our children enthusiasm, take away the hurtful words of peers, or simply ignore or suppress these feelings, when we continue to make the same kinds of judgments about ourselves, and we give credit to the judgments expressed by others?
A child’s feelings can be as fragile as a moth’s wings
Feelings of some diminishment of self-worth based on visual appearance and comparison to others are near universal. They aren’t universal. There are people who care nothing about their own appearance or what others’ judgments may be about their appearance. They’re the exception, maybe an enviable one, but not part of my own experience as a person or as a parent. I also can’t deal, within a few printed words, with manifestations of self-doubt that take the form or harmful behaviors like self-mutilation, such as cutting, or eating disorders that can destroy health. If a behavior based in body self-image is getting in the way of not just enjoyment of life but also getting in the way of doing the things we need to do to be productive and social people, then professional intervention is called for.
As a parent, the key is probably to model the behavior we want to see in our children, and to seek professional help if these negative thoughts begin to get in the way of the rest of life.
The challenge is that as adults we’re often continuing to harbor our own self-doubts. It should come as no surprise then that our children are unlikely to confide in us their own doubts about themselves. I remember at age five looking in the mirror, being upset with what I saw, and telling my mother that my head was too big. It seems completely silly today, but at age five, it was a personal crisis. Ultimately, and likely very quickly, I got over that worry and grew a body that fit my head in more pleasing proportion, and probably never again mentioned to my mother any dissatisfaction with my physical body. So my concerns ended there? No, not even close, but I began to learn acceptance. I grew up with two parents in the house, and I’m sure that I never mentioned anything like that to my father. He would have considered anything short of a compound fracture (broken bone protruding from the skin) to be frivolous.
How do we help our children become comfortable not just in their own skins, but with their own skins?
Recognize that their self-perceptions change over time (and the years around puberty are a minefield)
Most of us pass through a period of time in which our bodies feel all-wrong, we have the most boring families on Earth, and it’s never going to get any better. Of course, it does get better, and we realize that most people are too busy thinking about themselves to even notice us and our hideous deformities. When it comes to private parts, we’re unlikely to ever know our children’s concerns about themselves, but if a child does disclose an insecurity, let’s take it seriously, and engage another trusted adult, if it’s outside our ability to fully understand or even partially deal with. The unwanted attention for a girl who developed large breasts and a curvy shape earlier than peers can be just as painful as the locker room teasing for a boy who’s late to reach puberty or who has an unusually small penis. A single parent of the opposite sex may be particularly challenged to even understand the depth and potentially-lasting nature of this pain.
Be as honest as kindness will allow
Beginning to call a son “handsome” only after he’s decided that he’s a social outcast because of having inherited his mom’s ears and his dad’s nose is going to fall flat. Trust is the lifeblood of any relationship, and don’t burn-through goodwill by telling a child something that he or she thinks is not genuine. Unless you started addressing him as “handsome” at age two, don’t be too effusive in your praise for his appearance. As unsatisfying as it may be, perhaps instead tell him that having the features of his parents will gird him to deal with the future adversities of life.
Help separate superficial features from real concerns (even if these conclusions are likely to be rejected out of hand)
Love handles we can outgrow or mostly ignore. Morbid obesity will shorten and significantly complicate life. Peer social rejections and teasing may not distinguish between them, so we have to help.I’ll close with one small parenting success and one ongoing personal challenge.
I had one sister, and she inherited the same bushy dark mustache that I and all of our brothers had, from a very early age. We’d inherited it from our Mediterranean ancestors, and while a bristly upper lip may be a memorable and endearing feature on an elderly grandmother, it isn’t on a girl or young woman. I was 18 months younger than my sister, and in no position to advise what if anything she should do about it. However, we were only a year apart in school, and we even shared a classroom for one year. I saw how it affected how others viewed her and interacted with her. When my own darling daughter was a little girl, I saw that this physical feature hadn’t skipped a generation. I never said anything about it to our daughter, but I told my wife that before she started school, my wife needed to apply a hair remover or take her to a salon and teach our daughter at some point how to do it herself. My wife didn’t fully understand, not having inherited this feature herself from her ancestors, but she went along, and took care of it. If she hadn’t, I would have, but it would have been awkward. This small exercise in personal grooming both helped bring my wife and daughter closer together, but it also spared our daughter completely the social consequences of having a thick dark mustache. It was an issue she never had to deal with.
Now in the full flower of middle age, I still deal with body-image issues and insecurities that I’ve had since age six. It never stood in the way of a full life, but I missed opportunities and made sub-optimal decisions along the way because of it. There wasn’t anyone for me to confide in, and nothing to prepare me for the path that I had to walk in life. The internet didn’t exist, not in any practical sense, until I was in my 30s. Although tremendous resources are at the fingertips of our children today, there’s also a great deal of misinformation out there as well, and some of what they see and read is likely to do more harm than good.
Starting in my 40s, I did find good and useful information, but I also learned that life in three dimensions is the place to resolve insecurities. I faced my own fears and found that life on the back side of fear and hesitation is much better than life on the front side of that fear. My feelings aren’t nearly as fragile as a moth’s wings anymore, and adults aren’t nearly as cruel with words and judgmental as other children can be.