As the diktat of thinness looms over ever-younger children, the Body Positive movement strikes back.
Extra small Belle. The Little Mermaid and her hourglass figure. Cinderella who must have burnt off calories spending so long scrubbing the floor. What if the next Disney heroine were fat? That’s the question Disney was asked last December by Michelle Elman and Amy Wooldridge, two British bloggers who dressed up for the occasion as Rapunzel and Snow White. Coincidentally or not, this question echoes last summer’s polemic at the Cannes Film Festival about the advertising campaign for Red Shoes and the 7 Dwarfs. On the poster a beautiful, tall, slender female character stood beside a much shorter, plumper version. What really caused the uproar (and appalled the animated parody’s director) was the tagline: “What if Snow White was no longer beautiful and the 7 Dwarfs not so short?” It was a perfect example of the body-shaming tactics used by marketing, instantly picked up by plus-sized model Tess Holliday. “Why is it okay to tell young kids being fat = Ugly?” she wrote in a tweet.
Discrimination begins at school
While nobody today would try and deny that one can be discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of physical appearance, few would suspect how widespread this discrimination is in childhood. And yet, even in nursery school, teachers are thought to behave differently with attractive and unattractive children, as reported in France by Jean Maisonneuve and Marilou Bruchon-Schweitzer in the early 1980s ( Modèles du corps et psychologie esthétique, PUF). This discrimination may even continue through primary school up into higher education and is already at work in the home. Comments about weight such as “he’s so chubby” or “isn’t she a little outside the weight chart?” or “the school canteen must be good!” begin in early childhood…
As a result, some children have a complex about their weight by the age of 5-6, according to the American organization Common Sense Media (CSM), which is dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology. Worse still, 80% of ten-year-old American girls admit to having already been on a diet. “As their self-awareness grows, children classify, categorize and situate themselves in the world. From then on, the first differences may appear to them and the first complexes take root: teeth, ears, size, weight, hair colour, everything they see in others that shows they are different, abnormal, may cause a negative vision of themselves,” confirms Catherine Monnot, PhD in social anthropology.
By urging parents and women to change the way they look at themselves, we can help create positive role models for children.
Cartoons and role models
While adults struggle as best they can to deal with an idealized image of the body, conveyed by adverts celebrating thinness and increasingly retouched models, children are in no way spared. In 2005, a Canadian feminist foundation published a report on girls in Canada which revealed how, from their first years at secondary school, they felt a form of pressure from the media. For its part, the organization Common Sense Media made an in-depth study of popular Nickelodeon and Disney children’s/teens shows and found that 87% of female characters aged 10 to 17 were underweight. And those who fitted the conventional definitions of beauty were accorded the most positive traits. The heroes of these series are well aware of this. In August 2017, Raven-Symoné, child star of Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven (2003-7), appeared on the talk show The View and confessed to having been the victim of body shaming and to how much she still suffered from that experience even today. “[They said] I was too big to be doing an hour and a half concert. ‘I don’t know how she can dance being that big.’” Today aged 31, she said: “I wish I was living now as a younger person. I probably wouldn’t have so many mental issues.”
Birth of the Body Positive movement
For things have slowly evolved since the days young Raven-Symoné burst onto the screen in the 2000s. Thanks to activism by plus-sized models, celebrities and anonymous supporters, the Body Positive movement has become a media phenomenon. Its goal is to give visibility to “real” bodies and to urge women to love themselves as they are. Its popularity may have spread thanks to Instagram, but the movement was actually founded in the United States in 1996, when Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott decided to take a militant stand so that their kids could live in a world in which they wouldn’t have to feel they had to change their body at all costs. The original message is currently resurfacing via social media. “By urging parents and women to change they way they look at themselves, we can help create positive role models for children,” explains Laura Cherfi, head of the French collective Les Chahuteuses. “Adults who suffer from a lack of self-esteem today were mostly children who were not made to feel self-confident.” Sally Bergesen, director of the sportswear brand Oiselle, agrees. Last May she launched the hashtag #TheySaid on Twitter with: “Keep eating like that and you’re going to be a butterball. My dad when I was 12.” The exercise went viral and turned into a forum that showed how the most trivial criticism can have disastrous consequences for a child. A message that holistic health coach Allison Kimmey also wants to get across. This American blogger and body positive militant has posted photos of herself in a two-piece swimming costume on the beach with her daughter on Instagram (she has over 180,000 followers). “It matters how we talk to our daughters about our bodies,” insists this woman who, when explaining her “shiny and sparkly” stretch marks to her daughter, said “Aren’t they pretty?” “A body-positive attitude may prove necessary to counterbalance the flood of images to which children are subjected,” continues Catherine Monnot. All the examples of femininity close to little girls enable them to put their relationship with their bodies into perspective: one can be loved and fulfilled without accepting the codes of ideal femininity as projected by magazines.” So you know what remains to be done.