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Feminspire | July 10, 2014

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Why Are We Body-Shaming Children?

Why Are We Body-Shaming Children?

As Fat Talk Free Week begins on December 3rd, it’s important to reflect on our perceptions of body image in relation to our own appearances and the appearances of others.

Teaching moments happen every day in ways you don’t always expect. For example, while catching up with my favorite musical TV show, I saw an ad for a new show on Fox that rubbed me the wrong way.

I’ve never seen an episode of Fox’s Ben and Kate, but this is the impression I got from the season preview: Single mom looking to get her life on track lives with her goofy brother, and wackiness ensues. Kate accidentally pulls her T-shirt up with her sweater when she tries to take the sweater off in a restaurant! Ben tries to crash the wedding of his ex-girlfriend! Oh, the hilarity!

The show’s premise didn’t bug me as much as a scene in the commercial involving Kate and her 5-year-old daughter. Kate is giving her little Maddie a makeover, which, if not forced Toddlers and Tiaras style, can be totally fun. I loved it when my mom painted my nails some “grown-up” color or let me wear her lipstick. I had my own fake makeup sets from Toys ‘R’ Us, so getting to play with the real deal was a treat.

Kate puts on a posh British accent while she lathers Maddie’s lids with electric-colored eye shadow, and the bonding scene seems totally precious. Until Kate says, “I’m going to use some blush, because you have no cheekbones.”

Maddie, like most 5-year-olds, is child shaped. Picture a 5-year-old in your head. That’s what Maddie looks like. While Kate’s comment is portrayed as an innocuous moment in childhood play, if you take a second to think through what she is saying, and the fact that she is saying it to a 5-year-old, it is actually pretty harsh.

“You don’t have cheekbones, and I am fixing that. You probably don’t know what cheekbones are, but I am letting you know early that this is something about your appearance that is not OK the way it is.”

Am I over thinking this? Not if you believe that it’s never too early to discuss what it means to have a healthy body image.

This doesn’t always concern weight. Teaching healthy eating habits, while also good to do in childhood, is not the same as making sure a child knows that they have nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to how they look on the outside and how they should feel about their appearance.

Instead, the messages children and their parents are taking away from the media is that it’s never too early to begin molding an kid like silly putty into a shape society sees as acceptable.

Another example of this “baby body shaming” came from a newspaper article about a newly released study. PLoS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a series of parental factors that can used to determine an infant’s likelihood of becoming obese.

“Prevention of obesity should start as early as possible after birth,” the study states. Because putting “00” on onesies is the new “Age Infant-Six Months.”

Screening newborns, as well as prenatal screenings, for inherited genetic disorders isn’t a new practice. Tests for diseases Tay-Sachs, sickle cell, anemia and Cystic Fibrosis can ensure the safety and proper treatment of a baby with a disease before it becomes life threatening.

What do you need to know in order to start fat shaming your baby? Here are the risk factors:

1. Parents’ body-mass indices. BMI is a calculation determined from weight and height that is not a direct measure of body fatness. Doctors do not define obesity by BMI, but as one of many factors that contribute to determining if one’s weight is a health risk.

2. The baby’s birth weight. Birth weight is always a concern for parents and doctors. Low (five pounds, eight ounces or less) and high birth weight (eight pounds, eight ounces or more) can lead to birth defects and health complications for baby and mother.

3. The mother’s weight gain during pregnancy. A mother’s weight gain during pregnancy is also a concern in relation to child safety. Magazine articles love to print the diets and exercise regimes celebrities start to “lose the baby weight.” But moms aren’t just trying to keep weight off post-labor: Many women are trying to limit weight gain by inducing labor early.

The March of Dimes campaigns against measures to schedule a baby’s birth before its full development. These women, who schedule induced labor or cesarean birth (c-sections) before 39-40 weeks, are choosing to limit the amount of brain and lung development in their child in order to curb weight gain, not experiencing premature birth, which can be life-threatening for baby and mother.

4. The number of members in the baby’s household. The study showed that the more family members in the household, the more likely a baby will be obese.

5. The professional category of the baby’s mother.

6. Whether a mother smoked during pregnancy. Professionals in the medicine continually spout the dangers of smoking, so it makes sense that “smoking for two” would be just as damaging for infants. Studies are still being done to determine if obesity is genetically linked, which could help individuals make lifestyle changes earlier to control obesity.

If obesity (“obesity” meaning excessive weight with health-threatening consequences) is really the global epidemic health organizations and the media constantly warn will soon be unmanageable, why shouldn’t parents and children be concerned about managing what they eat, how often they exercise, and other lifestyle choices?

Because parents and children aren’t worried about becoming obese: They’re worried about their child becoming fat.

And there is a difference. The Center for Disease Control defines obesity as having excess body fat, and states obesity is a leading cause of factors that can contribute to death, such as diabetes and heart disease. The CDC says that a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher is considered obese.

Weight is a contributing factor to your overall health. So is physical activity. So is nutrition. So is mental health. So is your environment. So are your sexual practices. So is most everything in your life.

“Fat” is what a bully calls someone to make them to feel bad about how they look. “Fat” is a feeling of shame when someone tries on plus-sized clothing that typically isn’t seen on runway models. “Fat” is the word women are trying to reclaim, because beauty isn’t defined by what you weigh, and never should be.

A positive body image is as important as any other health factor. If you follow the food pyramid, have the bottom level of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs fulfilled, but berate yourself for having a “muffin top,” you are not living a healthy life.

Why isn’t this what we are teaching children? Why is playtime the place to impose fashion as a means of corrective appearance? When is, “Look at those chubby little cheeks!” going to mean, “Time to put baby on South Beach!”

It’s never too early to teach a child that they should feel good about themselves when they look in a mirror. It’s always too early to instill insecurity.

Written by Lauren Slavin

  • Life of Her Own

    It’s not just about weight though. The whole idea of having a makeup kit as a child or putting eyeshadow, lipstick, blush etc on a child is telling the child that their natural beauty isn’t enough. My mother wouldn’t even let me wear makeup until I was 16 years old because she told me that I was a child and didn’t need it, although she let me wear nail polish. We need to stop teaching little itty girls that they need to wear makeup, and sexy clothing, and sexy shoes, etc. Let’s just start focusing on their little minds.

    • Emma

      I think there’s definitely two sides to this, though. Absolutely we should not teach kids that they NEED makeup, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with kids playing with a variety of “grown up” roles, including wearing makeup.

      Makeup is an art form – if we’re teaching them to fingerpaint and crayon and make macaroni glue pictures, why not let them experiment with their faces? There’s nothing harmful or demeaning about wearing makeup, and I while I would certainly agree it’d be harmful if parents were telling their kids they needed makeup to be pretty, or that it was required of grown ups or something, I don’t think playing with it is negative.

      Anecdotally, I used to play around with my mom’s makeup as a kid (including using concealer as lipstick, haha) and now I rarely wear makeup. It was always just a fun playtime thing to me, the same as pretending to be a wrestler or firefighter or waiter or anything. From the sounds of this article, neither the author or the kid on TV were wearing the makeup daily or felt they needed it but rather just wanted to mess around with it.

  • Anonymous

    I’m really disappointed that you didn’t watch any of the show before criticizing it. The woman putting makeup on Maddie isn’t even her mother Kate, it’s her mom’s best friend BJ. I know that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of obvious body shaming that occurs in that scene, but it’s important. Why? Because BJ acts, throughout the series, as an example of bad choices (body and slut shaming / sexual harassment, you name is) and Kate endlessly counters BJ’s actions and teaches Maddie what is important and what is right. BJ is there to prove a point not only to Maddie in the show, but to viewers. She’s the bad example and Kate is the good example.

    • Lauren Slavin

      I definitely appreciate you clearing that up, and it’s good that the role Kate plays as a mother is the positive role model. But my mistake is an interesting point in terms of media presentation: The clip they pick up for promos that should attract viewers is a “funny” scene of body shaming.

  • Ellie

    While I agree with the overall theme of the article and most of its points (because body shaming children is a major issue), using “Ben and Kate” does not work. As mentioned in the above comment, the character making the remarks (BJ) to the child is not her mother, but her mother’s friend. BJ often gives bad advice to the young girl (Maddie), which her mother will refute.

    Of course, as the person said above, in the grand scheme of body-shaming, that doesn’t matter so much, especially since they used that scene in a promo without context (although we could talk about how the people making the show don’t choose which scenes go into the promo, and how it is likely they would not have picked that one). But in a later episode, BJ comes to truly realize the influence she has on Maddie (which she was unaware of before – as in when she made the blush comment) and begins to give her better and more forward-thinking advice.

    “Ben and Kate” is a funny show with good moral and forward-thinking standings, and it would be a shame for people not to watch it because of the false presentation this article gives of it.

    • Lauren Slavin

      I appreciate the clarification, and from what you said, it does sound like the show sends an overall positive message.