A few weeks ago my blissful solo drive to the grocery store was interrupted by a story on The Belly Button Challenge. According to reports, this challenge involves illustrating thinness by wrapping an arm around one’s back in an attempt to touch the belly button. Feeling incensed, I decided to further investigate. A recent BBC article on the Belly Button Challenge reveals that, “ A new social media trend has kicked off in China, with thousands of netizens uploading photographs of themselves showing off their bodies and undertaking the challenge.”
A National Post story from 2013 indicates that the challenge is not the first of its kind. “The “thigh gap” measuring practice is an Internet-fuelled trend in which teenage girls and young women pursue an elusive weight-loss goal: to become so slender that their upper thighs don’t touch when their feet are together.”
Despite decades of condemnation, body shaming seems increasingly rampant. The Internet has provided a global platform for endless selfies, rotten advice and opportunities to shame and be shamed. Sadly, it is no surprise that eating disorders are back on the rise.
During university, I read lists of books and wrote countless papers on the media’s objectification of women and societal pressures faced by girls. The topics stirred me academically but not on an emotional level.
However, when I read about similar issues today as a mother, it all feels personal and very threatening. To draw on the teachings of feminist trailblazer Virginia Woolf, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
As the mom of a female tween I am terrified of these looming pressures. One of the most anxiety provoking jobs parents face is trying to ensure that their kids are fed well. We stay up all night trying to get them to nurse or take a bottle. We rejoice as they move to solids and feel elated each time a new fruit or vegetable is added to the repertoire. As my kids grow towards adolescence, I can see the impact that food has on their ability to cope with days of learning and sports. One only has to hemorrhage so much money at Costco before realizing the amount of fuel an active little person requires. We actually have a sign in the bathroom that reads, “I am sorry for what I said when I was hungry.”
It infuriates me that social media might have the ability to work against all of my efforts by encouraging my daughter not to eat at a time when every bit of nutrition is needed most. To encourage her to be tiny, shaky, weak, distracted, irritable, teary and tired for the sake of meeting worthless societal expectations. To slow her down, make her less and unable to compete. Right at a moment when she believes she could do or be anything in a world where she is still far from equal.
I think of her goals and how many calories of healthy food it will take to fulfill them. I love watching her beautiful, sleepy, blue eyes open to eggs frying before an early swim practice. I love watching her pace the pool deck before a race, chewing on her goggle strap. I love the tea and honey she drinks studying and passing her a smoothie on the way to school. I feel comforted meeting these needs, just like when she was a baby.
Tween and teens are especially vulnerable when it comes to trends like the Belly Button Challenge. According to Family Physician Dr. Jennifer Chan, the tween and teen years are a time where identity develops and children begin looking for a sense of self outside of their family: “Kids of this age are looking to emulate someone and they need role models who are more than just physical pictures pressuring them to be thin. We need to provide them with athletic, brainy and strong examples of leaders who require ample high-quality calories for their success.”
Speaking of awesome role models, I truthfully was hoping that amazing women like Vicki Keith, Rebel Wilson, Lena Dunham, Venus Williams and Megan Trainor would have taken care of body image problems long before my daughters came of age. I think it was a bit too much to ask. So I am helping out by collecting some tips and compiling a list of ways we can help our girls to navigate the body image mire. I am not foolish enough to believe that a list could prevent the body image vampire from sucking the passion from my daughter but completing tasks like this should help my idle hands from wringing too much during the coming years.
Here are my tips for promoting a healthy body image:
When my daughter started wanting to weigh herself, I told her that the scale was for weighing luggage and promptly moved it to a scary corner in the basement.
I don’t know if shaking my jelly to Bootylicious will help my daughter to embrace her body but it does get morning smiles and feels fantastic.
There are so many amazing videos online illustrating how photos can be manipulated with Photoshop and other tools. Oh, and please tell your girls that experts deem both the Belly Button Challenge and Thigh Gap to be completely inaccurate measurements of health. In most cases, both are impossible to achieve without the help of Dr. Frankenstein.
Time to stop buying the magazines. You know the ones. And don’t judge me when I am reading them in line.
Someone once told me that children should think of food as being gas for their car. They should strive to fill their tank with the highest quality fuel, leaving room for a treat or two.
It is so great for strength, the mind, heart and body.
I hope that my daughter will be able to grasp how quickly these image-focused years will pass and understand how much could be lost by being weak and hungry during such an important time. Feeling attractive will always matter but gratitude for love, health and being alive will eventually trump all else. In the words of my grandmother, “A great laugh is the prettiest thing, with just a touch of hot pink lipstick.”