Photo By Leanne Surfleet
The other night I watched America the Beautiful by Darryl Roberts and it tells the story of a common concern these days, females and body image. One of the girls they track over about 5 years is a young model who is on her way to becoming the world’s youngest supermodel at the ripe age of 12. Of course she fits into size 2 at 6 feet tall! Of course she has a tight body with flawless skin! She’s 12!!!! The irony is that her mother is the one pushing her out there to get noticed at a young age, allowing her to party with the big girls. Everyone is worried about what all of this exposure will do to her self image and by the end of the movie, sure enough… well you should just watch it.
At one point in the movie Eve Ensler
recalls a trip to Africa where a woman is explaining how she sees her own body, in contrast to how the average Western woman views her body and it is profound. “My body? I love my body. My arms are so strong because they carry children and my legs are strong and can hold a man and crush him. My skin is dark and lovely. What do you mean you don’t love your own body?” It spoke a lot to me about the stories our own bodies tell. It makes me sad at the same time that they aren’t a treasure of stories and memories but are usually a source of pain and resentment for many women and young girls.
My daughter is still so young and innocent so I havne’t thought much about her teenage years or her adult life and the abundant badgering she will receive in the form of advertising, telling her that her looks might be ok but could really use some enhancing. I consider myself pretty well adjusted in my body’s self evaluation but I certainly have moments of weakness and I can easily begin to compare or see my body as my enemy while it ages and my tush moves south, hoping to one day join forces with my mid thigh.
I’ve often treasured the lines on my face. In my opinion they seem a bit classy and refined, symbolizing that I don’t have that round little girl face anymore, I look like a woman. I must admit that pregnancy has brought a shock to the system in terms of how I see my body. Things change so fast and furiously that it’s actually a rather difficult adjustment for most women (it was also for me) even though I loved how I looked once I actually looked pregnant and not just bloated. In the first few months it just looked like I hit buffet table a time too many. When having a baby should be a time to glow and radiate as you feel a life move inside your skin and embrace another rite of passage into womanhood (bearing children) it’s often a time of complaining about growing breasts, a back side that looks like another person is following close behind you and thighs that wobble and could possibly crack walnuts (or crush a small child). God forbid if a woman should get stretch marks (a self induced symbol of ‘shame’ for a woman who wants to keep the resplendence of her childhood skin)!
Here in the West, we loathe our bodies more than almost any other culture. That is actually an interesting study in sociology. Often it’s attributed to media involvement and how influential it is on a culture. Obviously our media influence is of epic proportions in the US.
One study on the media’s influence in this documentary was in the islands of Fiji. During the 80’s TV was brought into the cultural mainstream and the older generation was concerned about the influence the media would have on the traditions of how they viewed family, wealth, quality of life, their own cultural practices and, of course, their cultural perception of beauty, specifically the body.
Fijians are larger islanders who also tend to live a rather long time on a high fat, low chemical diet complete with sun and salty ocean water to boot. When I traveled to Fiji in 1994 our entire team of caucasians were told to eat more every time we sat down to feast with anyone. “You’re too skinny. Eat plenty! How do you expect a man to find you sexy? You’re too skinny!” followed by a lot of effervescent laughter (they are beautiful, joyous people). Once the TV took over the islands they noticed the rate of parental disrespect and self loathing of the body in the form of eating disorders jumped about 20% in just 5-10 years. These are islands with very few white inhabitants so the influence was not coming from the interior. So much of our worldview is shaped by what we buy into. To my shame I have bought into the lie at times when I should have seen over the dusty horizon to a richer and higher place.
My question is, how will I raise my daughter, and son, to see beyond the haze of a superficial culture which praises youth in a variety of forms (young executives who just graduated from party-ville and are now running our institutions, supermodels at the age of 14, over the hill actresses by the age of 40 who can only land acting gigs as hags, alcoholic mothers or grandmothers, and the decadence of young skin that is plastered over billboards and magazines all over the US!)? How will I teach my children this is all a dream, not reality? This is a strange and unreasonable world that has been created, much like the Matrix, and real women and men aren’t like this! Granted there is merit to being the best, radiant self that you can be and it’s ok to go to the grocery store in an aesthetically pleasing outfit rather than jammies, slippers and rollers in your hair. You can look nice and take care of yourself without feeling shameful or superficial. In fact, do take care of yourself. Love your body enough to care for it!
This is actually not as big of a fear for me as I am embellishing in my writing. I have a plan, see! A lot of experts say that we should limit our children’s exposure to media, advertising images and the amount of garbage that they see and hear while growing up. Mothers (and fathers) are not to defame or devalue their own bodies and talents especially in front of their children for obvious reasons. I know too many mothers who, even at this age (mid thirties) verbally deject their bodies in front of their children. Many girls remember their mothers as being on a perpetual diet. “Mom just needs to go on a diet, sweetie. Why? Well, her thighs are too big.” Or worse, telling a teenage daughter that her butt is getting too big and “you don’t want her to end up like your fat mamma, do you?”. Easy ladies! To our children we are perfect and flawless. We are also their introduction into how they should view themselves (and for our sons it’s how they will view other women).
I want my plan to go further than just avoiding the problem. I believe that what we expose our kids to really does have a lasting effect but I think there is something missing as we simply try to cut out media and it’s negative influence. My goal is to not only cut the exposure out but to add other elements. I’m not so concerned with what is out there as I am with what is missing. Where is the exposure to real beauty, art, poetry and nature? I think if we expose our children to the good life in it’s lovely and awesome forms they are less likely to feel the void and run towards what is available only on the surface.
Rather than follow the Pied Piper into the sea of bodily insecurities why not raise smart, confident and strong men and women who know how to live within the story? Who write the music or the books that everyone wants to read or who create the art that we want to see; who imagine and create a world with better working gadgets and inventions and who love, help and serve others? We can expose them to the good life without being so afraid of them falling prey to the deadly abyss of bodily insecurities, greed and immorality. Too many youth groups out there are primarily focused on keeping our kids from sleeping together when they should also be telling the stories of young men and women who succeed and draw deep from life. It will give them something to reach for. Another great quote: “If you want to teach people how to build better boats, don’t run them through an exhaustive course on boat making. Tell them stories of far away places”. -unknown author
We never get rid of wrong thinking by trying to pretend the Matrix doesn’t exist. Put another way, we can’t rise above if we’re still focused on the problem, we have to replace the problem with something better and higher, more magnificent. Instead of keeping our kids from bad media why don’t we just expose them to real art and poetry? Read to them from the time they are young. Take them outside to play instead of letting them watch crap with tons of commercials. Let them get bored and learn to create, draw or escape into their imaginations instead of feeding the boredom on a minute by minute basis. Expose them to more amazing possibilities rather than protecting them from the ‘polluted world’.
I realize I may be stepping on toes and touching on parenting practices but these are challenges I am laying down for myself as I raise my little people. I also know this issue is a bit more complex but I’m trying to live counter culture and often our culture’s way of dealing with problems and statistics is to cut out the cause of the problem rather than reaching for something lovely outside of the realm of possibilities. Personally I think this is how God deals with us. God brings more beauty and richness in front of us, shows us the mansion so we will get outside of the shack, and this lets us see what we’ve been missing rather than focusing on wrong thinking or wrong behavior. CS Lewis says, “We’re busy playing with mud pies because we don’t know that a holiday at sea awaits us. We’re far too easily satisfied” (a paraphrase of his quote). Focusing on my junk never gets rid of it anyway, it usually keeps me chained to it. Ironic, eh?
So this is my plan for my kids: I think I’m going to chose to believe there is still a lot of real beauty out there and I’m going to try and expose my kids to it rather than living in fear of what they might be seeing. We’ll still leave the TV unplugged in the basement mainly because we can’t find much to watch that is decent anyway but we’ll show them the DVD of Star Wars because it’s awesome and creative and they need to know that people are capable of creating amazing things when they have the space and courage to create. That’s just one example. Here’s to raising amazing children!