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Friday, April 22, 2011

Do we really believe in diversity?

What do you look like? And when was that impression formed in your mind?

Chances are that some of the negative terms you use to describe yourself date back to the playground, when critical peers first found your unique points and made you notice them.

'I’m a shorty.'

'My nose is big and ugly.'

'I’m fat and my bum is too flat.'

It’s pretty unlikely that you are so different or unattractive that you stand out in the crowd. But as a society we expend an awful lot of energy trying to persuade ourselves – and our children – that it’s best to conform to a norm that doesn’t exist.

Your body is a problem
It starts really young and getting younger all the time. Even US first lady Michelle Obama has been encouraging people to measure their children’s BMIs (body mass index) to see if they could be spiralling towards being overweight. In Malaysia, there’s a move to put children's BMI's on their report cards.

In a brilliant blogpost on the subject, food activist Liz Snyder sums up the damage done to naturally plumper children by categorising their different body shape as a problem:

'Fat kids spiral – many of them perfectly healthy to begin with (those naturally on the right end of the curve) – into social isolation, eating disorders, and a cycle of failed diets that sets them up for a LIFETIME of struggle.'

It’s a pattern I recognise with pain, having gone down exactly that road myself from plump childhood to obese adulthood to an uneasy middle-aged truce with my body.

For others it's a struggle about not having the right accent, speaking English with a Model C accent or Afrikaans with an English accent, or coming from the wrong side of town.

When we’re not judging our weight or our voices, we fall back on the question of skin pigment – and for every little black girl hankering after blue eyes, there’s a white teen spraying herself orange in an effort not to look so unattractively white.

Our actions as parents are the most important. If your teenager sees you hating your large breasts or frizzy hair every day, why would she think hers is lovable? It takes an effort of will to say: 'Here I am. My hair curls like this, my hips curve like that and I speak with a slightly nasal twang.'

But it’s worth doing, to give our children a mirror to look in and see the good, normal and desirable variation that makes us human.

And beautiful.

What’s the best way to keep children healthy and fit while embracing diversity?

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