This blog is authored by museum Museum and Early Learning Specialist, Brooke Shoemaker. Brooke has been at SEEC since 2011, and holds a BA in Theatre Performance from the University of Maryland with a minor in Human Development, and a M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education form Towson University. Brooke loves bringing traditional gallery spaces to life with young children through playful theatrical techniques.
Did you know that 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime? I am just one of these 30 million people, and over the last five years I’ve been on a personal journey to a feeling of self-worth that is not dependent on my appearance. About six years ago I developed anorexia at a time in my life when I felt like I couldn’t control many things, but I could control whether I went to the gym and “ate healthy”. I began to tie my success and worthiness to numbers: the number of miles I ran, the number of calories consumed in a day, and the number on the scale. I realized fairly quickly that my exercise and eating habits had veered away from healthy and had become obsessive and restrictive, and sought help from professionals, family, and friends. While I never thought that I would be dealing with this in my late twenties, the road to recovery from my eating disorder has led me to reflect deeply on body image, relationships with food, self-worth, and where it all begins.
Do you remember when you first had a sense of your body and what it could do? How old were you? Did you have positive or negative feelings toward your body? Children begin to develop their identities at a very young age, and this includes body image. A 2010 study found that almost a third of children age five to six would prefer a body that is thinner than their current size. Five and six. Think about that. What have children been exposed to, or influenced by, that leads them to these feelings of body dissatisfaction? My personal experience has led me to reflect on strategies adults can utilize to help foster a positive body image and healthy relationship with food in young children so that we can hopefully guide the next generation to feel positive about their bodies. Please note that body image and disordered eating are very complex issues, and there’s no set of circumstances to prevent or ensure they occur, however these tips are a step in the right direction.
Reflect on how you Talk about your Body and Relationship with Food
Expressing dissatisfaction with your own body or food habits can affect children’s body image and relationship with food. This was illustrated to me clearly when I overheard a four-year-old say, “When your stomach sticks out you need to exercise, that’s what my mom does.” I’m sure that the child’s mother would never say anything negative about her daughter’s body, but children absorb these messages from adults, and what happens if this child observes her own stomach sticking out? Will she conclude that she must work out until she reaches a certain standard of acceptability? Children learn from what others do and say, and negative comments about our own bodies are no exception. By contrast, modeling body comfort encourages children to have acceptance and appreciation for their bodies. For example, “Exercising made my body feel really good and now I have more energy”, or after coming back from a long walk: “Wow, thank you feet! You helped me walk such a long way today.” If negative body talk is ingrained in your everyday language, Dove has some great tips in recognizing and curbing it.
We all have biases, but recognizing our negative biases regarding body image and food is the first step in countering those biases and ensuring that we don’t pass them on to children. During my own recovery, I’ve recognized how many “should” and “should not” beliefs I held about my body and food. Try to catch yourself when you think or say something about your body or food and question why you think that. If you’re not sure where to begin, try taking the Weight Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s Project Implicit. The results might surprise you and spur your reflection.
Commenting on Children’s Appearance
While I don’t remember any of my early childhood teachers commenting on my appearance, I do remember multiple teachers in middle and high school making comments about my lanky frame. One high school teacher made a comment that I must not eat very much because I was so skinny. Other teachers made comments about how thin I was. I’m sure these teachers believed their comments were innocuous. Upon reflection, however, I see how these comments began to ingrain themselves into my identity. Being skinny was part of who I was, and what I was recognized for, so what happens if I lose that identity?
When I started this journey, I became more aware of the way I talked to children about their appearance. As an early childhood educator, I knew that I often commented on children’s bodies in terms of their function. For example, “Your feet help you run on the playground” or “Your stomach breaks down your food, which gives you energy.” However, I started to notice that I also often remarked on children’s clothes, partly because I really did enjoyed the pattern, colors, or designs of their clothes, and partly because it’s an easy and quick way to engage with a child. But what did the children learn when I remarked on their clothing, often as soon as they arrived at school? Probably that their clothing and appearance is important and garners approval. Children’s identities should be built on their inner qualities, not their outer appearance, which changes by the day. I now immediately recognize when I say something about a child’s clothing, and instead follow up with a comment about them as a person, not their appearance.
Celebrating the Body
Our bodies are amazing! They hold intricate systems that help us do things like running, jumping, dancing, climbing, hugging, and more. At SEEC we follow an emergent curriculum, but embarking on a Human Body unit is a common occurrence in our classrooms. Young children’s bodies develop so many new skills in such a short amount of time, from growing teeth and chewing, to crawling, to running, to controlling bowel movements. There are many exciting milestones. Children are often curious about this and want to learn more, which has led to lessons about blood, hair, and more. Learning about the body creates an appreciation, respect, and love for all it can do.
Identity Work That Goes Beyond the Physical Characteristics
A common topic explored in our classrooms is “All About Me” which encourages children to think about their identity. While we focus in part on outward appearances, we also delve deeper into what makes each of us, “us.” We value those traits and preferences that make us each unique, and those that make us similar. Some of this work happens at the start of a new school year when teachers and children are getting to know each other. We share favorite things and talk about our home and family lives. However, this topic of building our identities does not end in September. Our classes explore this topic through all of their units. For example, during a unit on sports, our preschoolers considered the character traits athletes must have including perseverance, teamwork, and integrity. The class discussed how each child also had these traits and how they help us as people. Another way to value children’s characteristics throughout the year is making note of their actions that exhibit these traits and celebrating them. For example, one of our three-year-old classes has a paper tree in which they add notes to the tree limbs to recognize moments that exhibit character traits. Children are able to celebrate the fact that they are kind, helpful, persistent, brave, etc., which builds their sense of identity.
Discussing Media Influences
Even if all the adults in a child’s life speak positively about their and other people’s bodies, we unfortunately cannot escape the media. Children receive messages from books, TV, games, advertisements, and even politicians. Although we cannot control the media, we can have conversations with children that combat stereotypes and negative body talk.
In addition to conversations, adults can provide positive media, such as images and books, that represent the world around them with bodies of all shapes and sizes. At SEEC, we are lucky to be surrounded by the amazing collections of the Smithsonian, including artwork and objects that showcase variety in bodies. However, even if you’re not located near the Smithsonian or other such resources, you can access them online via Smithsonian’s Learning Lab. I’ve created a collection of artwork and objects from the Smithsonian and beyond that reflect a variety of bodies that can be used with young children in the home or school.
As educators, parents, caregivers, grandparents, older siblings, etc., we have the big and important job to guide young children as they are beginning their own journey with developing their self-worth and body image. With this foundation, when children get older and encounter negative body stereotypes and talk, they will have the tools to think critically and reject it.