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When the Miss USA Pageant airs this weekend, it’ll provide kids with another stream of beauty standards that, for most of us, are impossible to live up to.
Does that even matter?
Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, says yes. Shame is “amongst the most debilitating” feelings we can have, she says. “It can make it difficult to go out into the world and do anything from athletic endeavors to work to finding significant others.”
And today, a lot of kids feel shame about their bodies. For girls, growing up in a world full of photoshop and plastic surgery, “there are some really extreme forms of connoting beauty,” Saltz says. “And the pressure is also up for boys in a way that it never was.”
So how can parents help kids feel good about their bodies?
To begin with, Saltz says, parents need to “put their own oxygen masks on first”: be in touch with their own feelings about their bodies. “If you want your daughter to like her size, but you’re constantly saying you don’t like yours, that will make the bigger impact,” Saltz warns.
At the elementary level, Saltz says, parents should start talking about the body early, and using “correct anatomical names, not nicknames that connote embarrassment.” Kids at this age are endlessly curious, which parents should encourage, says Saltz. By being open to questions, “you get to be the source,” Saltz says, “instead of someone else who tells them how big their butt should be and what they should be doing with it.” Enthusiasm is also key, says Saltz. She encourages parents to start conversations with the attitude that “It’s amazing what our bodies can do!” – and encourage kids to get excited about all the things their own body can do, as well as what it feels like to get moving, with questions like, “What was fun about that? How did it feel? What did you learn?”
Middle school, Saltz says, is a time to have conversations about “your body being yours, and no one else having any say over that.” Girls in particular, Saltz says, start to get messages around this age that their body is something they have to use as currency. Parents of both boys and girls can counteract these messages by encouraging kids to think and talk openly about the consequences of using their bodies in different ways. Kids also hit puberty at very different times, Saltz notes. Parents can help kids navigate those differences by letting them know that everyone is different, and that’s normal, a message that they won’t get from the artificially perfected bodies they see in the media.
High school kids, says Saltz, are under a lot of pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards. Parents can combat this by letting them know the truth: there isn’t really just one beauty standard. In fact, as Saltz points out, “people are attracted to all kinds of people.” Even at this age, Saltz says, it’s still important for parents to reinforce that their kids look good, “but not to have the emphasis be on that solely.” The sweet spot, according to Saltz: keeping the emphasis on what our bodies are for, and all the amazing things they can do. “More than how you look in a swimsuit,” Saltz says, parents should be encouraging kids to focus on “what you did in the water, and how that felt.”