Most kids love the warm weather and outdoor fun of spring and summer, but not all children enjoy this time of year. The more revealing clothing can make kids uncomfortably aware of their bodies. Body image issues might be aggravated – or brought to light for the first time – during the warmer seasons.
Not that negative body image is a part-time problem! Today's kids feel tremendous pressure to be attractive every day. They frequently compare themselves to peers, celebrities, and models and come to the conclusion that they don't measure up. This body dissatisfaction can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, and unhealthy behaviors that affect all aspects of life.
You can help your students appreciate that their bodies are a gift from God. Here are some ideas for building positive body image now and all year long:
Display a positive body image yourself.
You wouldn't put yourself down for your weight, describe extreme dieting experiences, or criticize a part of your body when speaking to your students, but you might talk like that with your colleagues. If you do, be sure kids are nowhere around. (They hear everything! Yes. Everything.) Model a positive body image by talking to your students about healthy meals you've enjoyed, fun physical recreation your family has shared, or new activities you want to try.
Teach about the human body.
Understanding the amazing construction of the human body in general helps kids appreciate their individual bodies. Teach your students how their bodies work and what they need to function well and grow. Once children comprehend these concepts, lessons about good nutrition, regular exercise, and other healthy behaviors make sense. (Kids will still need encouragement to take care of themselves, but a relevant context can really help!) Most importantly, emphasize that physical differences are okay and changes in the body are a normal part of growing up.
Promote new physical activities.
Encourage your students to get physical in new ways. Trying a new sport, game, craft, dance, or other activity shows kids that their bodies can do all kinds of things – maybe more than they ever would have expected. Even if they don't excel at a new activity, or stick to it for long, the experience might teach useful skills or steer them towards more suitable pastimes. When you yourself teach new activities to your students – or join them in an unfamiliar game or sport – you bolster their confidence and further improve body image.
Keep an open mind.
It's easy to make assumptions about kids and body image. For example, we often think of negative body image as a big problem for girls. It is! Girls worry a lot about their appearance. They are especially troubled about weighing too much or developing too early or too late. But boys have body image problems, too. They tend to be concerned about being strong and looking "manly" and muscular. Very young children can also suffer negative body image – and so can especially attractive kids or ones who seem quite happy. Many kids hide their dissatisfaction with their bodies, so stay open to the possiblity that any child could develop body image problems.
Use media literacy to encourage positive body image.
Our faith teaches that the inner person matters, not the outer appearance, but today's media often promote the idea that nothing's more important than looks. You can help your students handle this challenge by teaching them to think critically about media. Be sure they understand about the manipulation of images, the use of advertising ploys, and the differences between the world of entertainment and real life. This kind of media literacy helps kids maintain their faith perspective and preserve a positive body image while consuming television, movies, magazines, and social media.
Watch for signs of trouble.
Negative body image can lead to severe emotional problems such as depression, unrealistic perceptions of one's body. obsessions and compulsions, eating disorders, and addictions. Keep an eye out for warning signs like mood swings, withdrawal, extreme dieting or overeating, lack of concentration, inability to enjoy anything, covering up the body, avoidance of physical activities, smelling of smoke, or any big changes in behavior or attitude. Serious problems require professional intervention that you can't provide, but you can take steps to get troubled children the help they need, offer them support, and include them in your prayers.
Today's kids can get so wrapped up in body image issues that they forget they've been given a wonderful gift. Remind them often that God blessed them with their amazing bodies, and they should appreciate and take care of his gift. Share scripture passages and the teachings of our faith about the beauty of the entire person – body and soul. Lead your students in prayers of gratitude for the blessings of their bodies, and encourage them to pray on their own. With God's help, they can grow to respect and treasure their bodies.
by Diana R. Jenkins
After over twenty years as a special education teacher, Diana R. Jenkins became a freelance writer. She has written hundreds of magazine stories, articles, and comic strips for kids and teens. Her books include Goodness Graces! Ten Short Stories about the Sacraments, Stepping Stones – The Comic Collection, and Spotlight on Saints! A Year of Funny Readers Theatre for Today's Catholic Kids. Her latest book, Tackling Tough Topics with Faith and Fiction, is a resource for adults who want to help young teens face modern challenges with a faith perspective. Visit her on the web at www.dianarjenkins.bravehost.com, read her blog at http://djsthoughts-dj.blogspot.com, and find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dianajenkins.