Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Leave my skin alone, please.

One of my little pleasures is a great cup of coffee paired with the Saturday morning paper.  So, as I settled in last Saturday morning, I was intrigued by the front sheet of the Ottawa Citizen - a blurry picture with the tag-line, "Only a miracle can blur the lines."  I turned the page to find a full two-age ad declaring a new product that can "instantly" blur the look of my lines, pores and wrinkles.

My response was to immediately write a letter to the editor of the Citizen to explain that my skin is fine the way it is and that I would prefer that the newspaper stick to reporting newsworthy events rather than   promoting the idea that I need yet another beauty product to be okay.

Ah, the media.  A complex and, dare I say, toxic playground for advertisers to convey the message that I am not acceptable the way I am.  I need to change.  And if I would just buy this product or that, I'll most surely be better...stronger...prettier...thinner...and so on.

No one articulates the toxic impact of the media more succinctly than Jean Kilbourne, Ed. D.  For more than 40 years, Kilbourne has been researching the impact of advertising on our collective self-esteem - especially women.  Her "Killing Us Softly" videos are classics and a must-see for anyone who is or who knows a female.  Here's a trailer for the 4th and most current "Killing Us Softly" video.  Please be advised that after you watch any of Kilbourne's videos, you will never see print media the same way.  You've been warned.

My two girls are well-schooled in the perils of the media.  From the time they could talk, I have pointed out to them that the people we see in advertising don't look anything like the people that we actually know.  They are fully aware that Barbie's measurements make her such that, if she were a real person, she would be physically incapable of standing erect.  Her breasts are simply too large and her waist impossibly small.  Poor thing.

Does this mean that my daughters are immune to societal expectations of what "beauty" means?  Hell, no.  My 13-year-old (a competitive athlete who exercises strenuously 5-7 hours per week) hates her muscular, athletic thighs, noting that they are too big.  My 7-year-old laments that her body is "different" than her peers because her tummy is too round.

I don't parent any boys but I would argue that images of men in the media are just as distorted as women, if not as prolific.  Further, I would advocate that unrealistic images of both men and women are damaging to all of us because they suggest that people should look and be a certain way - although that "way" is utterly elusive for all but a small percentage of people.

So, what's a parent to do?  We are literally saturated with these unhealthy and unrealistic images - so much so that we rarely stop even to question them.  They are everywhere.  It's impossible to shield your children from them, although limiting television advertising and print media in your home is a good start.  I would also advocate that a great first step is also to get a handle on your own body image issues.

I know.  It's a tall order, isn't it?  I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't have at least one hang-up about his or her body.  Focus on what your body can do and not what it looks like.  Throw out your scale and concentrate on eating in a healthy way most of the time.  Indulge once in a while.  Don't label food "good" or "bad."  Food is just fuel for our bodies.  Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full.

I know, I know.  This is North America.

But stop anyway.  It's important to enjoy a range of foods - some more often than others.  You know when your body feels good and your clothes fit comfortably.  Attend your yearly physical and have your family doc take your vitals - including your weight - so that you stay on track health-wise.

Find a form of exercise that works well for you and that you can stick to.  Our bodies were made to move every day and, even if you're not a star athlete, there are lots of things you can do to increase your heart rate, like walking, dancing, cleaning and taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator.  If people you know tend to discuss on weight and dieting, ask them to respect a "no-diet" zone when they are with you - there are far better things to talk about.  Be mindful of the messages you are sending your kids when you comment on the way others look.  Whether your comment is positive or negative, you're still sending the message that how people look matters to you.  Talk instead about the great qualities that you value in your friends and family.

For more ideas, check out The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (www.nedic.ca).  It's a great resource for ideas on how to promote health eating and body image.  For more info on how to think critically about media images, visit About-Face (www.about-face.org).  Their tagline, "don't fall for the media circus" kinda says it all.

As for me, I'm off to enjoy a steamy chai latte and a visit with one of my favourite people.  Oh, and I'm having the whipped cream, thanks.

Be well,


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