Too Fat to Fit In?

I recently learned of a brand of clothing that achieves exclusivity not through price, but through size. Brandy Melville offers almost all of its clothing in either size “small” or “one-size-fits-most” (as long as “most people” are small). The brand is one of the hottest lines of clothing for teens, according to research firm Piper Jaffray.

It is not new for teens to try to build their identity and gain acceptance and a sense of belonging through their clothing choices. It is simply the brands and the looks that change. But while previous generations of teens were barred from the most exclusive looks by price (or were forced to spend far more than they could afford on designer labels or celebrity endorsed merchandise), Brandy Melville is relatively inexpensive. Instead, the brand has set the price of entry into its club at being very, very skinny. Now, instead of a teen blowing all her savings on a purse she really can’t afford, she is pressured to go to unhealthy measures in order to fit the same size pants as everyone else.

The immature part of my brain remembers being poor and skinny as a teen and thinks “Where was this when I was 16?!” But the mature part, the wiser woman in me, has learned that in life, the target for superficial popularity is always moving. Basing one’s identity on a look or a brand will never really satisfy the human need for security and belonging. But how do parents teach that to their children?

It was one thing for parents to refuse to purchase expensive clothing when the family couldn’t afford it. At least teens could blame their parents for being too poor or frugal. My fear is that teen girls will blame themselves for not fitting into Brandy Melville — and that their disappointment or anger will turn towards their bodies (even more so than it already does for young adults). Parents, especially those of girls who are too normal-sized to fit into the skinny brand, must help their children understand the dark side of marketing and branding. Companies like Brandy Melville prey on insecurities — they need us as consumers to feel inadequate without their product. But clothing is not our identity, and it can never create acceptance. Clothing is at its most basic level a tool to keep us protected from the environment. Yes, it can be used for self-expression, but if you are dissatisfied without the clothing, you will be dissatisfied with it.

Are your teens victims of marketing who strive to purchase only the “cool” brands? Consider:

  • Banning Brandy Melville on principle, even for your children who could fit into the clothing. Refuse to buy into the unhealthy standard that all girls should be shaped a particular way.
  • Check your own attitude about clothing and identity. Do you model an attitude that clothing does not define an individual?
  • Challenge your teen to develop his or her own style. For example, challenge them to only buy clothing from resale shops for the next 6 months.
  • Purge magazines from your home. Magazines are often glorified catalogues that feed the desire for particular looks and brands.
  • Encourage your teen to develop a more global awareness of what life is like for others who cannot afford to be obsessed with their looks. The popular Hunger Games movies and books are easy conversation starters: ask questions about the parallels between the image-obsessed residents of the Capitol and our culture’s obsession with brands like Brandy Melville.

Have more ideas? Share them in the comments section!

Talk About Real Beauty with Your Children

In recent years, Dove has tried to create a niche for itself by promoting real beauty and self-esteem. Granted, it still sells beauty products, and what I am sharing in this post is still an ad, but it provides a helpful reminder, nonetheless. Warning — if you try to avoid images of scantily clad women, this video is not for you.

(Video from link here.)

We are all impacted by advertising, and now part of parenting is helping your children sift through advertising’s messages. It’s a tough job, but it is necessary. Here are some activities and conversations to try with your kids (boys and girls):

– Pick a time to do an “ad purge” of your house. Make a competition to see how many ads or examples of marketing your kids can find throughout the house. (If you want to de-clutter at the same time, throw away or recycle as much as you can.) Examples of what you might find: magazines, catalogs, political mailings, all forms of product packaging, coupons, in-app ads on mobile devices, TV, radio, the backs of books, and the list goes on.

– Collect several examples of health and beauty products in your house. Read the packaging, front and back, with your kids. How does it sound? Do you believe it? Is it scientific sounding or fanciful? For younger kids, ask them to write packaging for a beauty product that they invent and talk about it. For older teens, ask them how they select which products they will use.

– Pick a day to go without make-up as a family. I’ve known whole schools to make a no-make-up day, encouraging teachers and students alike to show their bare face to world. Talk about whether make-up is easy or difficult to give up.

What other ideas can you think of for encouraging your kids to see real beauty?

Boys Deal With Body Image Issues Too

Most of what we read about body image issues focuses on girls who are trying to be model thin, or are obsessed with showing off their…curves.  But boys are not immune to our culture’s unhealthy focus on appearance.   A new study discussed in an online article by ANI News shows that boys who are of a healthy weight, but think they are too heavy or too thin, are more likely to be depressed.  Those who think they are “very underweight,” are the most depressed.  Boys who do not exhibit the bulging muscles of their peers, or of media celebrities, and experience bullying, are also more likely to use steroids, according to the article.  Giving our boys a healthy sense of self, whether they are muscular and toned, or of a leaner or huskier build, is as important as making sure girls know they don’t have to look like an airbrushed sunken-cheeked model.

He’s Hot, She’s Hot. Judging a Book by its Cover.

I wonder…how much do we really judge based on externals?  “He’s hot,”  “she’s hot” are frequent descriptors teens use in everyday conversation. We’re not immune as parents.  Why do we secretly enjoy it when our kid dates an attractive guy or girl? Don’t we want our teen to believe it when we say “character counts”?

If we want to direct our teens to think about how they might be affected by a culture that values looks, perhaps the following provocative sayings might lead to interesting conversation around the dinner table tonight:

Boys think girls are like books. If the cover doesn’t catch their eye they won’t bother to read what’s inside. – Marilyn Monroe

That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful. – Ninon de L’Enclos

You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen. But if you are beautiful at sixty, it will be your soul’s own doing. – Marie Stopes

One story I tell in the classroom is about my 20-something friend who married a young woman who is attractive, yes, but not drop-dead gorgeous.  Because he’s a really good-looking guy, his own  mom didn’t show up at the wedding because he could have done better. Yet his bride has the kind of character we would all want in a daughter or daughter-in-law!  Our culture says he lost out…but I say, “Well done!”

Boys and Eating Disorders

We’ve heard about boys turning to steroids to enhance their sports performance, or their muscular looks, but did you know that more boys use diet pills, powders or liquids than steroids?  The LA Times wrote about the increasing percentage of guys who now struggle with eating disorders, including in particular “purging” behavior like vomiting and using laxatives.  This seems to be an increasing problem in other areas as well, including Chicago, according to the article.  Why?  Experts point to the push in our society for men to attain to an athletic ideal…a lean, muscular body.

What might the signs of eating disorders in men be?  Here is a CBS video (from 2008 but just as relevant today) discussing what we know about men and eating disorders if you’d like to find out more.

Thigh Gaps and Flat Tummies

The pressure never lets up it seems.  Just when my generation thought we’d freed ourselves from the girdles our mothers wore, now we find our daughters (and ourselves) squeezing back into uncomfortable and (according to an NBC report) potentially unhealthy “shapewear.”  The preoccupation with looks, and finding our self-worth in our attractiveness, is a plague on womanhood that marches on.  And now it’s not just constraining lumpy tummies and muffin tops, its also achieving the “thigh gap.”  Who knew?  Watch this report by NBC to find out more about this new obsession.

For heaven’s sake!  I haven’t seen the light of day between my thighs for at least 20 years.  And after trying shapewear, which my daughters insisted is a necessity (yes, I have a muffin top that threatens to overflow), I couldn’t wait to get out of it!  How I wish our daughters could know how little it matters if they are not the best-dressed, prettiest, or thinnest.  Moms and dads, let’s wage war on the warped message that their worth depends on externals.  TALK to your girls about what really matters. Build up her worth based on her character and her talents, not her conformity to our society’s standards of beauty.  And realize that females may be the ones putting more pressure on other girls than guys do. Dare I also ask you…moms…to examine the messages you are sending as well?  Does our example or our words also make our daughters feel like nothing if they don’t measure up physically?  If so, we need to change our own values first!

Worried About Your Teen’s Weight?

A New York Times health and wellness blog on teens and weight got my attention, because it reported on a study that focused on parents’ and other adults’ (such as teachers or coaches) often well-meaning attempts to “help” overweight children.  The study found that parents can “tease” their children about weight, in a misguided attempt to prompt their children to lose weight.  Their motives are often out of love, knowing that being overweight is distressing to a child, and also draws bullying from peers.  But parents’ methods can create new problems.  

Reading about the things parents do that are unintentionally hurtful triggered a memory.  My now svelte sister went through a period in her teen years where she was mildly overweight, and I thought I recalled our father “teasing” her about it, so I asked her about it.  “Yes, he called me Fatso,”  she said.  My response was “That’s terrible.”  We agreed that Dad meant well, and truly did love her, but his method of connecting–teasing and humor–was hurtful and probably contributed to some later life consequences.  

So how can adults help children to attain a healthier lifestyle and weight (surely a worthy goal), without crushing their spirits or even, potentially, contributing to things such as eating disorders?  The article, which is worth reading in full, gives a lot of “dont’s” and a few “do’s” from Yale researcher Dr. Rebecca Puhl.  One “don’t” in the article is: “Don’t engage in ‘fat talk,’ complaining about weight and appearance, whether it’s your own, your child’s or a celebrity’s. Saying ‘My thighs are so huge!’ teaches your child it’s acceptable to disparage herself and puts way too much emphasis on appearance, says Dr. Puhl.” One “do”: “Focus on health, not weight. ‘Promote a healthy environment for everyone in the home,’ says Dr. Puhl, not just the child who is overweight.”

If you have an overweight son or daughter, and your attempts to help aren’t working, some of the blog’s suggestions might just help.

Free showing of documentary, Miss Representation, May 8

A documentary has been getting a lot of buzz, and hits on some very important topics for parents to consider.  Miss Representation is an award-winning film (shown on the Oprah Network last October) that looks at the portrayal of females in media, and how it affects not just girls and women, but boys and men as well.  This important documentary is being shown free to the public at Glenbard West High School Tuesday, May 8 from 6:30-8:30 p.m., followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.  The film’s website says, “In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. ”  Click HERE to see an 8-minute trailer for the movie, or HERE for a shorter one.  WARNING:  There are some graphic images of partially clad women in these trailers in sexual situations.  If you try to keep your eyes from these kinds of images, you should perhaps NOT watch the trailers or the  movie.   The message in the movie is mixed in with a particular political stance that you may or may not agree with, but the focus on media and its portrayal of women is undeniably powerful and important…and could lead to some good discussion.  I would consider especially taking daughters to this movie.

Prom Insanity

USA Today, in an article out last month, reports that teens (or is it parents) are now spending between $1000 and $2000 on going to the prom.  Am I alone in thinking this is insane?  OK, so I’m someone who has never had a professional manicure or pedicure, has never set foot in a spa, and got my wedding dress off the clearance rack.  I am probably more shocked by prom-gone-wild than the average parent.  But I wonder, are these expectations reasonable in this economic environment?  And are we setting up our teens to expect all the luxuries they want throughout life without consideration for the costs?  Worse, if a young man (or young woman I suppose) is spending so much for one night, is he going to expect to “cash in” with a romp at the hotel?  Just today I heard the story of a woman who recounted the first time she had sex.  Junior Prom.  It was the price she had to pay to get her older boyfriend, who didn’t want to hang out with high schoolers, to go.  She called it “prostituting” herself, but used rougher words  So sad.

Parents, it’s time to have a sober talk about expectations for prom.  It can be fun, focus on friendships, and leave no regrets.  Or…it can be quite different. Let’s ratchet down the expectations.  This is not their wedding night, and it’s not the pinnacle of life from which everything from here on out goes downhill.

Piercings More Dangerous Than We Thought

When it comes to piercings, many parents decide it’s not a battle worth fighting.  Until the piercings multiply.  Most of us have some unease with the “statement” a teen seems to be making with multiple piercings in increasingly “creative” places on the body.  The question of what to allow seems to boil down to two questions:  Do piercings make a “statement” we don’t want our kids to make?  And are piercings safe?  The Journal of Family practice reported on a study showing that multiple piercings DO seem to be correlated with some negative behaviors such as lower academic performance, greater drug use, and risky sexual behavior.   Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported on a study by Northwestern University that shows that a disturbingly high 20 percent of piercings result in bacterial infections.  Some piercings can cause other problems such as broken teeth, gum damage, interference with X-rays and MRIs, and even death from infections that reach the heart or other vital organs.  The article goes on to point out that nearly a fourth of millenials (those born in the 80s and 90s) are pierced somewhere other than their earlobes.