Body concerns can involve all parts of the body; and around peers, kids can be particularly sensitive about their appearances as boys and girls or as young men and young women. Freud said that the penis symbolizes power, and for most boys (and, yes, even for grown men) a bigger penis means more power (Surely you’ve noticed how the person driving at the wheel of a Hummer usually is a man.). However, as most women (and even honest men) will tell you, the idea that “bigger is better” has a lot more to do with a man’s need to prove himself in society than with his sexual performance. Nevertheless, there is something about size that gets equated with adequacy: bigger equals “I’m powerful!” and “I’m more than adequate.”
Similarly, women often get preoccupied with their breast size although such concerns are often driven more by hopes of getting attention from the opposite sex than by the woman’s personal interest. Girls and young women don’t just come up with this on their own. Societal pressure fuels this issue, particularly media images that continuously reinforce certain body types as more desirable than others. In the end, commonly, personal adequacy gets correlated with SIZE.
So if you’re planning to respond to your son’s concern over his penis size simply by telling him that he shouldn’t worry about it or telling your daughter that her breast size doesn’t matter know that your counsel is tantamount to saying you can’t help them with their problem.
As parents, it’s hard for us to hear that our children have negative and painful self-images or feelings about themselves. Sometimes, however, just letting your son or daughter express his or her feelings openly in your presence is what your child needs in order to heal. They don’t always want to be consoled; they often just want to share their pain safely—a first step to gaining perspective. Acting as if pain can be magically removed or pretending that peer pressure is easy to ignore can lead kids to suppress their feelings, making them feel even more alone and leaving them even more vulnerable to peer attacks.
We cannot listen enough. The problems or concerns we have with our bodies are felt on many levels. They should not be denied or avoided. Though we want to emphasize to our children that self-worth is more than how they look, we have to seriously conider that their feelings about their bodies connect to their self-esteem and begin our work from there.
Don’t forget the impact that your support and approval (as well as your criticism!) have on your child. Be keenly aware of what you say to your child regarding his or her body. To help you with this, here are a few pointers about what you should and shouldn’t do to help your child take ownership and accept his or her body.
How Can Parents Help Build a Healthy Body Image?
1) Avoid comments on size or weight. This includes comments about your child and other people—especially jokes. If the subject comes up, do not talk about the weight but about the impact that comments like that have on a person. The point is not to make rules about what’s okay or not okay to say but to help your child understand the affect our words have on others. Don’t just tell them not to make fun of someone’s size; explain that comments like that have a huge impact on the self-esteem of others. Likely, your child will be able to relate to feeling hurt by another’s words. Parents, schools, religious groups, and pop culture need to confirm the reality that people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors—and that this is okay: tuning into situations like this is an opportunity to send a positive message that improves kids’ understanding and acceptance of diversity—and themselves.
2) Help your child understand attraction. This includes what specifically he or she is attracted to, and the presence of attraction in all aspects of life: physical, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual. By helping your child identify what elements of something give him or her significance and pleasure, you support your child’s enjoyment within and enhance identity, instead of emphasizing looking outside for happiness. Whether it’s humor, music, sports, or another person they are enjoying, you can help your kids name out loud what specifically is valuable for them.
3) Shop with your children. Help them develop confidence in taking responsibility for their physical appearance through clothing selection. Explain to them the impact of first impressions on others through their choices and discuss what impression they want to make. When children want to select clothes that are not flattering to their bodies or shapes or are inappropriately revealing, try to tactfully steer them in another direction. If this guiding nudge doesn’t come from you, your children may become the object of pointing fingers at school because of their poor choices.
4) Help with expectations. Guide your children about what to realistically expect from their sense of attractiveness, in all spheres of life. Help them understand attractiveness—in themselves or in others—and help them to bring this into their lives. Teach them what can’t really be known from first impressions. Help them understand that while attractiveness on one level can be very compelling, satisfaction usually feels best when we find it on many levels—physical, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual.
5) Pay attention to doubts and insecurities. Children will often leave small clues about their feelings, to see if you’ll ask further. Don’t minimize their concerns; take them seriously, provide reassurance, and try to place their concerns in perspective. We may be uncomfortable talking openly about our children’s self-doubt. So instead of communicating openly, we gravitate toward indirect methods of dealing with appearance issues.
Your involvement and support to help your children feel comfortable with their body will guide them to feel confident in their choices as they establish their voice, manage peer pressure, and develop the core for their sustaining identity.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.