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6-Year-Old Thinks She Is Fat

What would classical ethics have us say to our children about body image?

It looks as if younger and younger girls are professing a concern about body image. Which comes first, their concern or our concern about their concern- today's ABC news story certainly does nothing to answer that question. Link to ABC News "6-Year-Old Thinks She is Fat."

If I can make this issue simpler for the sake of discussion, I'd leave the matter of eating disorders and their cause to the side (it seems to me that the research on the cause of eating disorders is so active that I'd be loath to distract anyone from what is being found by science).

If I can do that, and consider cases like the one presented in the new story above: parents worried about healthy children considering themselves "fat"- I'd like to articulate one perspective on body image from philosophy.

If every good is in the soul, then whatever strengthens, uplifts, and enlarges the soul, is a good; virtue, however, does make the soul stronger, loftier, and larger. For all other things, which arouse our desires, depress the soul and weaken it, and when we think that they are uplifting the soul, they are merely puffing it up and cheating it with much emptiness. Therefore, that alone is good which will make the soul better. Seneca, Moral Letters

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It is a familiar refrain among classical ethicists: if you put stock in how others perceive you, you will be batted around like a puppet pulled by strings going in every direction. It used to bear *so much repeating*.  Even when the ethical accounts themselves shared little in common, the need to seek the right kinds of good was emphasized again and again.

But today? I don't think we hear this much. If we did, what would its application to body image be?

The typical sort of body image concerns would be classified as a vice, the vice of vanity. It would be discouraged, effectively, in the way other vices are: by calling it out in a straightforward way, but also more subtly, by example. "Don't be vain!" may be far too harsh, a bit like telling someone overweight that they are. But "vanity is so unworthy of you" might do better.

What does it mean to be vain? Why would avoiding it matter?

To be vain means to put stock in something that is worth less than you've taken it to be. In this case, it would be the idea of having an admirable or perfect body. Classic approaches to ethics suggest that the idea that we must have admirable bodies is foolhardy.

What makes for a good body, really? They would have us ask ourselves this. It might take some thinking. We certainly enjoy being admired for our bodies, it feels so good to look good, bodies are gorgeous, wonderful to look at. Isn't this enough to suggest that how our bodies look really, really matters?

We'd be told to keep thinking. We'd be asked to think about what a functioning body allows us to do (to live!) versus what an attractive body helps us to do.

For adults, there are a few things attractive bodies might allow us. Being attractive might help us to "attract" people who then become loving partners. Sure. But people with "unattractive" bodies also find loving partners. People seem to find loving partners regardless of weight. I would even say this can happen effortlessly. So this isn't such a good excuse for caring very much about having an ideal body.

But having an attractive body might garner you more respect or attention from even people with whom you are not romantically involved. From the perspective of classical ethics, these things would be gotten through the short-cut that is beauty- and they would feel hollow if gained in this way.

I'd like to suggest that the classical ethicists would recommend an approach that differs from sympathy and mollification for those unhappy with their body image. This is not to say, especially in the case of children, that there are not others to blame for these ideas we get about what we are supposed to look like! But this philosophical persepective is different from that offered in the news story- it wouldn't recommend, as the news video seems to suggest, that teachers not even encourage exercise lest it hurt feelings, given what it implies.

Instead, the classical ethicists would condemn the desire to look a certain way itself! There is hardly a reason for adults to desire a perfect body, and even less of a reason for children to be keenly interested in how their bodies look.

Parents inspired by classical ethics would signal to children (as sensitively as possible, of course, this would never work if not) that wanting to be the prettiest is the wrong sort of aim. Any real distresss over not meeting some ideal for our bodies: thinner, taller, red hair, whatever the wish is for, would, by parents invoking classical ethics, be addressed by an attempt to point out the problems with the ideal in the first place. Some of the problems with pursuit of these body ideals might be:

*It is a way of competing with others that is both not legitimate and hopeless. With beauty it is so obvious: we all age and outgrow our (or any) beauty. But even for the young- beauty ideals will always outstrip one's own assets. That is the nature of the game. It is a losing game.

*In a way it disrespects others. Is it so very terrible to be fat? Why? Are fat people so terrible? Is our concern about how heavy we are not a put down to our overweight friends? Would it be so terrible to be them? Of course not. Does the impetus towards looking a certain way come from a desire to distinguish yourself from others? If so, that is not kind.

Granted, we do seem to internalize, somehow along the way, general norms of appearance. Would classical ethicists recommend we throw out our combs and empty our closets? Well- maybe a few. But most of them would recommend that we tend to ourselves, but in a way that is not a matter of seeking approval from others- (do I feel healthy, grimy, unkempt?)  This would be using yourself as a gauge. That's not the vice of vanity, as it would involve no misunderstanding of what real admiration and approval ought to be based on.

How we look is to a large degree not up to us, and even to the extent it is: we should think of it as a tool. (For example, how great to be perfectly ugly to the people we do not like!) A tool for the point of doing good things in our short lives.

Seneca again: This is the error under which we labor; this is the reason why we are imposed upon: we value no man at what he is, but add to the man himself the trappings in which be is clothed. But when you wish to inquire into a man's true worth, and to know what manner of man he is, look at him when he is naked; make him lay aside his inherited estate, his titles, and the other deceptions of fortune; let him even strip off his body. Consider his soul, its quality and its stature, and thus learn whether its greatness is borrowed, or its own.

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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