“Am I ugly”: How can we help?

Over the past few months I’ve spoken in various schools to students between the ages of 12 and 18 about body image. In one school a sixteen year old female students plainly said “If society tells us to be thin, we need to be thin, no questions asked.” The sadness bubbling in my throat was palpable and I could taste my own sense of worry and anger toward the messages that were given to this young woman.

As living, breathing human beings we are susceptible to the messages that society lays out for us. One such case is a current trend in the UK, “Nenuco Won’t Eat.” Nenuco is a doll that through a magnetic mechanism, refuses to eat. As Lynne Grefe, CEO of NEDA writes, “I don’t think it’s going to teach a 4 year old to have Anorexia but it says that not eating is OK.” I agree with Ms. Grefe on this note – Nenuco will most likely not teach young children to have an eating disorder. At the same time though, children are becoming body conscious at younger ages and this doll will likely encourage negative habits in some if not many, youngsters.

A more extreme trend was reported recently, of girls between the ages of 9 and 14 posting videos of themselves on YouTube and asking “Am I ugly?” Individuals post their comments with their often brutal and disgusting opinions. I could sit here writing an entire sociological thesis as to where this came from and how it is that we are allowing or encouraging our youth to feel so dependent on others – strangers – for personal validation relating to beauty and self-worth. But I won’t. Instead I’d like to use this piece to address a different aspect of this issue.

There have been countless, brave individuals who have written blogs and articles about the deterioration of our society and the dominant culture; we are given expectations as men and women as to how we should look and act. We are taught that we need to be a perfect size 2, anything smaller is “sickly” and anything bigger is repulsive. We sit back and blame the media, blame society. And we are partly correct for doing so. When Twiggy emerged on the fashion scene, the “thin ideal” became stronger. We read tabloids that criticize any celebrity weight gain are taught to talk about people as objects, that their appearance represents their worth in this world.

And yet, I believe we have more power than we might know. While we talk about the asinine messages we are given, we do little in our own homes. I agree that society contributes to the thin ideal, and that it can be challenging to break away from this and the other ideals we are given. But I have seen too many people criticize these messages and then go on to gossip about other women’s sizes and obsess about diets and talk negatively in front of their children.

Yes, we can and for many reasons should blame the media. But more importantly we need to work on this issue in our own homes.

Dieticien Laura Cipullo in New York has stated numerous times that men and women should NEVER use the word diet in front of children. Although many diets can come from a healthy place, too often talks of these diets are exaggerated in front of young minds who are taught to believe that shape and appearance are of higher value than parents may have intended. It is easy to fall into a disordered eating rhythm of talking about calories and joking about how “this cake is just worth it” but people do not acknowledge that this can be passing down negative messages to young children and teenagers.

It is when a teenager enters puberty that s/he discovers his/her body. To overhear talk about how “awful I look” or overhear a parent obsess about weight loss can trigger the idea in this young individual’s mind that the parent really values appearance and so I must value appearance as well.

This is not to say that parents should never consider a diet; rather, individuals should be mindful of what is said. And not only for their children, or young people around them, but for themselves. I am able to now look back on just how much time I wasted thinking about my body and appearance, counting my calories and rigorously exercising. I lost so much time from my life planning meals and counting when I could have been using my mind and body for productive, fun, useful experiences.

When children are met with dolls that won’t eat we need to learn to feed them positive messages about our bodies, food, and health. And when they hear their friends complain about weight or learn of dangerous sites on the internet we need to be there to promote positive self-esteem and self-worth.

We are given one life, why not set our own standards and teach the younger generation – as well as ourselves – that appearance does not define character and weight does not define beauty.

About the Author
Temimah Zucker, LMSW is a primary therapist at Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice in the fields of eating disorders, self-esteem, and mental health. Temimah writes and publicly speaking on these subjects and is also an adjunct professor in NYC teaching on the subject of the treatment of eating disorders. For information or inquiries please see her website.
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