Lana Sussman Davis knows just how fraught it can be when it comes to her – or others – commenting on her daughter’s appearance.
“My mother loves seeing my daughter in pretty dresses and things like that, so often my daughter –she loves my mum – says, ‘Lulu would love me in this’,” says Sussman Davis, a Sydney clinical social worker and mum of two, about her mother, Louise and her daughter, who is seven. “Can you see how it’s connecting? ‘She would love me in this.’ If I wear this, I would be loved more.”
Continuous comments on a child’s appearance can have lasting effects.Credit:iStock
It causes friction in the family.
“I wouldn’t ever want them [my kids] to ever feel they are not good enough because of the way they look, that’s what it comes down to. [Them thinking] ‘I am not enough’,” says Sussman Davis, 38.
It’s a struggle that is playing out regularly in homes across the country. Among the parents of my kids’ friends, I’ve heard concerns about children as young as seven asking their parents (who worry about their own weight) if they’re fat, and parents who get dirty looks from their teens when they suggest that they might want to consider showering. (The teens interpret the request as a criticism of their appearance.) Nearly all of them worry, at times, about whether their child is showing the beginnings of a long-lasting complex about their looks.
So is this the concern of the so-called “worried well”, parents who have no greater concerns and too much time on their hands? Or are parents – and grandparents and friends – messing up how they speak to the children in their lives about their appearance, and giving them body image anxieties as a result?
For University of Newcastle sociology lecturer Julia Coffey, it’s a conversation that desperately needs to happen, and widely.
“My kids’ grandparents will often comment on their own bodies, and other bodies all the time, negatively, and I’m like, what are you doing?” says Coffey, who has researched the often debilitating effects of people who continually have their appearance appraised by others.
Interviewing people in NSW aged 18-30 for her new book, Everyday Embodiment: Rethinking Youth Body Image, made clear to Coffey just how long-lasting problems can be for people who continually faced comments about how they looked when they were young.
“Those who had the most difficult time with [body image concerns] referred back to childhood and felt that their bodies were constantly being commented on by parents and peers and everyone around them,” she says. “They felt they just couldn’t escape it. It was impossible to choose to feel good about their bodies when it was constantly being talked about.”
One participant, a healthy young woman, said she felt too self-conscious to buy ice-cream or chips at the shop out of fear that the person serving would judge her. “[Because] she was constantly getting comments,” says Coffey. “If she put on weight, people would comment, or lost weight, people would comment.”
Coffey saw the impact of these comments radiate throughout the participants’ lives.
“My study showed that if young people were feeling stressed in other areas of their life, around not getting shifts at work, or relationship problems, or peer problems, anything that exacerbated existing image concerns, they’d turn the concerns back on themselves. ‘I need to fix my body’,” she says.
Mission Australia’s 2020 youth survey revealed that concern about body image ranked as the third highest concern of the 25,800 people between 15 and 19, after coping with stress and mental health.
Negative comments about appearance, adds Coffey, were particularly damaging for mental health. “Anything that makes children or young people re-examine their own bodies through the eyes of others and critically appraise it.”
It’s a mindset that can last a long time.
“I have always thought, until probably not that long ago, that I would be happier if I was thinner,” says one friend, a woman in her late 40s who says for most of her life she has been in a “constant battle” with her weight. “When I get down to a certain weight, I’ll feel like I fit in more [and be] less self-conscious. I just felt sexier and happier. I probably wasn’t happier. That was probably more of an illusion.”
The problem, she says, began in her childhood with her parents’ comments.
“My dad started calling me ‘chubs’,” she says, when she was 17, and had returned from an overseas trip where she had gained some weight. This was preceded by her parents taking her to a doctor to go on a diet at 12 because she was a little “chubby”.
She has no doubt that her parents love her and have always wanted the best for her. But she’s suffered as a result of their comments.
“I’m constantly saying to myself, ‘I’m not good enough’,” she says.
So why do so many of these negative comments come from people’s own parents?
“I think they’re probably just not aware of how powerful those comments can be,” says Coffey. “And I think that they might think it’s just a normal part of life. And that it isn’t a big deal. That women just care more about their bodies. It’s just part of this norm or narrative and can’t change. But that is completely wrong … It’s completely culturally constructed. But very real in terms of how it’s felt and experienced.”
How can we do better by the children in our lives?
Lana Sussman Davis helps mothers work through their issues around their “post-natal” body. When her mum comments on how much she loves her daughter’s pretty dress, Sussman Davis will say to her daughter: “Yes, she would really love these colours, but what she loves most of all is spending time with you because you’re so fun to be around.”
It’s a healthy strategy, says Coffey, whose children are aged three and five.
“I tell my kids, ‘Oh you look so beautiful in that today, that looks really comfortable to wear’. I’m always trying to give them other identity-based or qualities too alongside it. So it’s not like beauty is the only thing. It’s part of a whole person.”
Adults, she says, can be a crucial voice that counters the constant barrage of messages children get every day – in the media and from their peers – that looking a certain way is important.
“You can be critical of the norms and say, ‘You know, everybody deserves to be loved, everybody’s shape is loveable. People are valued and important for so many things beyond their appearance.’”
And what to say to family members who think that praising a child for wearing a pretty dress, or for looking cute, is harmless?
“[I would say] ‘I don’t want it to be a norm for my kids to think that if they’re not beautiful, then they aren’t as important as someone else’,” Coffey says. “So this is what I’m trying to do, which is to comment on the other qualities that they have, the kinds of things that they can do with their bodies [like climb a tree].”
We should be encouraging children, Coffey adds, to focus creativity, strength, courage, kindness and generosity, instead of on their appearance.
“It’s not like this cancel-culture type thing, where you’re not allowed to talk about [body image and beauty],” she says. “But be aware that if you talk about appearance all the time, you’re saying, ‘I think it’s very important and a source of value’.”
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