Body Image and Back to School Shopping

It can be tough being a kid in light of how much media there is around us. There are so many messages coming at kids from all directions. There are the things you teach them as their parent or caregiver; there are messages from their peers at school, from their friends and even those kids who aren’t their friends. In addition to all those influential people, we also have the media: a vortex of advertisements, actors/actresses, models, campaigns, even clothing stores themselves! With their window displays, mannequins, sales people and the clothes they carry - these are all messages to our kids.

There is actually a store in Toronto that only sells one size. It is literally a “one-size-fits-all” store for young girls. Talk about sending the wrong message! It’s important to know what’s out there, but more importantly, how to talk to your kids about body image. From their perspective, it’s common to believe things such as:

  • If everyone on TV and in Magazines and movies looks like that, I’m supposed to as well
  • I need this item, or to wear this clothing, to be cool and fit in
  • All my other friends shop here so I have to as well
  • I wish I looked like that _______ (insert any advertisement or magazine photo here)

With all these messages coming in, it’s important as a parent to make sure they get the full picture. Back-to-school clothes shopping is a great time to have these talks. Girls and boys as young as 8 years old can have issues navigating their body changes. Sometimes they get ahead of their peers, waiting for everyone else to catch up. Other times they feel stuck, like everyone else around them is changing and they’re not. Some of these changes, like a height growth spurt, can be quick, while others (such as growing out of an awkward pre-teen phase) require patience.

It’s easy for them to get down on themselves for not looking like everyone else around them. Sometimes it’s easier for kids to make up this physical transition by using clothing and items. In their minds, perhaps if they’re wearing the coolest jeans, the other kids won’t care if they’re lankier than their classmates.

Heart power and knowledge power

When these situations come up with your child, it can be helpful to break up your talk with them into “knowledge power” and “heart power.” Knowledge power consists simply of the facts. In this case, when you’re at a store together near a magazine rack, or you see them studying some celebrity’s body on the cover of any magazine, it can be helpful to illuminate the fact that this picture was definitely photo-shopped to give them some perspective. All professional photographs are super edited. If your kid can use SnapChat to put bunny ears on someone, distort their faces or even switch faces in a photograph, imagine what a professional photographer can do with editing and re-touching photos. I’ve seen photographers make the small skin/tissue crease made by an armpit disappear. A whole piece of her body, just gone! We forget that photographs don’t show reality, but to our kids, they show us superstars and people to idolize.

Another example would be window displays at clothing stores. Clothes on mannequins are usually pinned tighter at the back to give the illusion of a better fit. Don’t let your kids be discouraged. Remind them that every individual is different. We don’t all look the same, and that’s a good thing!

Heart power comes from inside. It’s composed of self-esteem, self-reflection, self-love. Sometimes kids need a little encouragement or direction here. It means being an individual and being true to themselves; appreciating their body as is, and wanting to keep a healthy, happy body and mind. Remind your kid that there is no one in the world exactly like them. Even if you’re a twin/multiple - there are always differences, and these differences should be celebrated. Help your kids to identify who they are. What brings them joy? What do they find fun or exciting? What is their personality like? What colours do they tend to draw towards?

Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. It’s impossible to have clothes that will look perfect on everyone (unless you are a rare pair of Travelling Pants among a sisterhood of friends).

Clothing size conundrums

As your child grows and needs different sized clothing, it’s important not to get too hung up on the number. When they start doing their own clothes shopping, they’ll take notice to the size on the tags as they try things on. For a lot of girls this number is given too much power and can be stressful as they try to match their friends. Some of it is out of our control; there are stores/brands that have a very different idea as to what a size 2, 4, 6 or a “small”, “medium” … etc looks like. Your kid might be one size with several brands/stores, but at another store their regular size might be way too small for them. This goes back to the no “one-size-fits-all” rule. Be familiar with which stores and brands tend to suit your kids’ needs the most (and the ones that fit with your budget) and focus on those.

The Super Suit

Maybe you have a kid who doesn’t really care what they wear, they just want to be clothed (or maybe they just like running around the house naked). But most kids use clothes or costume items as a way of either having fun or to contribute to their identity. As humans we take a lot of information from our vision. Even as adults we know that what we wear has the power to change how we feel.

I like using the analogy of a “Super suit.” Everyone should have a Super suit (or several combinations of different suits): It’s the clothing that makes you feel confident and comfortable. It’s the clothing that makes you, you. To an adult, the Super suit could literally be a power suit that you wear to the office; something professional and sharp. Maybe your Super suit is what you get to wear when you get home: sweat pants and your favourite T-shirt. Maybe it’s dresses and skirts instead of pants and shorts. For me, it’s yoga/athletic wear with leg warmers. The point is that it has to be something that makes that person happy and lets them be themselves.

For kids, this could just mean clothing that is comfortable, practical and clothing they really like wearing. With young kids, you may want to give them options and let them choose their favourite; or pick clothes that are in their favourite colour. Another great idea for back-to-school shopping is to hit up thrift stores. This is a great way to keep clothing costs low and to help reduce our clothing waste. It might not sound so glamourous to a kid, but it can be like “treasure hunting”. Find really neat one-of-a-kind items; ones that are unique and fit your kid’s personality and style.

There is a lot of pressure out there for kids and teens to look and dress either like their friends, or like celebrities and models in the media. Your child might not have any body image issues at all, but if you notice them wanting to dress and be just like someone else, inquire why. Is it an internal reason? Do they relate to this person? Or is it an external reason, are they just wanting to fit in? Go back and guide them to understanding their inner person - their personality, their likes and dislikes. Remind them that those women and men in magazines and advertisements aren’t all normally like that. It’s a form of art. Clothing is just that: practical and artistic. And our bodies, as they are, should be celebrated as we all continue our journey with body growth, development and healthy living.