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Looking Beyond Physical Appearances

“Why is your chin like that, a preschooler asked my 87-year-old-mother, who came to visit our class. My mother said, “I don’t know how to answer that.” (She has droopy skin on her neck.) On a previous visit, a little girl had asked her, “Why did you get so old?” Inside, my mother doesn’t feel “aged.” She is just as surprised as these innocent four-year-olds to see the changes aging has imprinted on her appearance in the mirror. I mention this because January is one of the months that magazines urge adults (especially women) to take stock of their physical appearance. Most women’s magazines hit the stands with at least one diet or  exercise feature since people are often eager to reverse overeating trends as the year begins. The relationship between good health, eating well, and exercising has become part of our knowledge base. But what about our culture’s fear of aging and its effect on our children?

A few years ago, a little girl was afraid to go outside her preschool room because a teacher (one of the sweetest people on our staff) in her seventies with white hair might be out there supervising. The girl’s mother made cookies for her daughter to give to the teacher – one of many efforts she made to help them become friends. We want our children to think of people, and especially themselves. as precious whether or not they match the latest media ideal. Research now suggests that 80 percent of fourth grade girls say they are on a diet.

Articles on the health problems associated with girls’ distorted body images in a culture that celebrates a trend called “lookism” (being good looking is what gives you value) abound. Before media defined how one should look, young people might be exposed to only a few unusually good-looking people during their whole adolescence. Now that number can be multiplied exponentially in one TV viewing day. A question for both genders arises: “How do children perceive people who don’t fit into the good-looks norm?” One study showed that when researchers showed silhouettes of people who looked obese, children characterized them as bad, stupid, and ugly. Research shows that one powerful influence on children’s body images is their parents’ attitudes.

We can all start by examining the way we react to physical appearance and speak about it. Can old people be appealing? What about those with disabilities? How about those who are unusually tall or short or overweight? Think back to your childhood and how you responded to people who looked different. In the past, there was a tendency to find people who are different than us scary, to tease them or avoid them. Differences can even make us feel threatened or angry as adults. The real question is how we regard the “being” of people in relation to their outward appearance and whether or not we make them “other” – people who don’t count, whose feelings we can disregard.

Psychologists believe that parents and teachers can contribute a much-needed holistic perspective on body image. They can talk back to TV advertisements, as well as stereotypes in books, magazines, and on TV. “Why does that picture make the old woman seem ugly?”  “Did you know people who use their arms to move their wheelchairs have to be super strong?” We can talk about physical appearances as changing over time and what it feels like to be someone whom others don’t want to look at or be around. Such empathy is important because we want children to feel worthy of high self-regard no matter how others react to their appearance at any age. Outer appearance does change through different phases of development, ill health, accident, aging, and it’s important to speak the way we look as transitory. “This is the way you look now. but some day you will be an old woman.”

Focusing on the need to cherish each person’s heart – no matter how different his appearance may seem – prevents the human tendency to “otherize” people. So does being around people of all colors, sizes, shapes, capacities, and talking about the reality that we all have the same feelings – the yearning for unconditional acceptance. We can notice and comment on differences in positive ways: “I love her beautiful white hair.” “Isn’t she brave to use a walker when it’s hard not to fall down?” “Look at Adam’s beautiful chocolate-colored skin.” “I admire the way Sally dresses like a boy because she feels it suits her better.” Comments like these prevent negative stereotyping and fear of difference.

Thinking about the golden core of every human being and finding ways to appreciate outer differences can be a good way to start the new year.

Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.

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