How to Talk To Your Kids About Body Image During the Olympic Games

Matthew JohnsonIn ancient times the Olympics were a time when all nations – all Greek nations, anyway – would put away their differences and compete in almost every human activity, from poetry to the ferocious no-rules wrestling event called pankration. Being the very best that humans could be was seen as the best way to honour the gods of Olympus. Though we’ve dropped the poetry and the blood sports, people watching the swimming or volleyball events might wonder if we're on the way to bringing back the ancient tradition of competing in the nude. Revealing outfits – like those designed by Lululemon for the Canadian beach volleyball team – may be practical for those events, but they also shine a light on how dressing for sports can make us feel about ourselves. After all, it's hard to feel good about your own body when you've just spent an hour watching the most perfect physiques in the world nearly naked.

Olympic volleyball players
Image courtesy of Mark Blinch, for The Globe and Mail

What might be heartening or discouraging, depending on your mood, is that many world-class athletes have the same problems with their body image. Canadian trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan, despite being one of the top competitors in the world, told CBC Sports that she felt inadequate when she compared herself to her peers. Male athletes aren't immune, either: U.S. swimmer Cody Miller has said that he was afraid to take off his shirt in gym class due to a condition that gave him a sunken dent in his chest.

If even the world's best athletes feel insecure about their bodies, it's not surprising that young people do as well, especially during swimsuit season. We know that they feel a lot of pressure to look perfect, especially when they post pictures of themselves on social networks like Instagram and Snapchat where they and their friends use filters, artful poses and photo editing to create the illusion of perfection.

Here are some tips for talking to your kids about body image issues:

  • Whenever possible, co-view media with your children. This means sitting down with them and watching, playing or reading the media they enjoy. That's especially important at times when the TV may be on constantly, such as during the Olympics. Don’t criticize the media they enjoy, but look for opportunities for teachable moments where you can model the skills and attitudes you want your kids to develop and start them down the path of asking questions about the media they consume.
  • The three most important ideas you want your children to understand are that media are constructions – things that somebody made – that don’t necessarily reflect reality; that most media products are made so the people who make them can make money; and that people at different times and in different places have different ideas of what is a “good” body shape.

Girls are most likely to compare their bodies to those of celebrities (such as athletes). This can start a lot earlier than you might think! If you have a preteen daughter, ask her:

  • Do you compare how you look to celebrities?
  • Does seeing or reading about celebrities make you feel differently about the way you look?
  • What do you like the most about how celebrities look? Do you feel like you should look like that?    

If you have a teen or tween daughter who's using social media, you can ask them the following questions:

  • What makes a picture look good? What things about a picture make it likely to get more “likes” or get shared more often?
  • What are some of the tricks you or your friends use for making pictures look good? What are things you can do with just the camera and what are things you can do with editing software or with tools the social network gives you (filters, etc.)?
  • Do you think your friends change their photos before posting them? Why do you think people post them?
  • How do you feel when you see a photo of yourself or one of your friends that’s been changed? If the photo looks thinner, sexier, or otherwise more attractive then you think you are in real life, does that make you feel better or worse?
  • Do you or your friends rate, comment on or talk about each other’s photos? How does it feel to get a low rating or a negative comment? How does it feel to get a high rating or a positive comment?

Girls are also under pressure to look not just thin but sexy, too, and athletes are no exception: female athletes are often photographed in what Professor Pat Griffin calls “hyper-sexualized poses.” Griffin notes, “When it was once enough to feminize women athletes, now it is necessary to sexualize them for men. Instead of hearing, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ we are hearing ‘I am hetero-sexy, watch me strip.’”

  • Encourage girls to compare male and female athletes' uniforms, the amount of coverage different events get (do women's events get more coverage if they show more skin?) and the ways that female athletes are filmed, photographed and described by commentators or journalists.
  • Pick a successful athlete and compare how she's portrayed while competing and when she appears in advertising. How are the images similar and different? How are they sexualized or made stereotypically "feminine" in advertising in ways that they weren't when they were competing? What might have led to the changes in how she's portrayed?

Boys seem to be suffering more and more from body image issues as they're exposed to more and more idealized images of male bodies. Just like girls, this can happen very early: a GI Joe toy released in 1995 had biceps 27 inches around, larger than any bodybuilder that's ever lived. If you have a younger son who plays with a toy whose body is exaggerated, or watches cartoons with hyper muscled characters, you can ask the following questions while playing with them:

  • Is this how you or your friends, or the grown-up men you know, look like?
  • Why do you think the people who make action figures make them look like this?
  • Do you have to have big muscles to be a hero?
  • Can you think of people who are heroes who don’t necessarily use their muscles to do good things?

Teen and tween boys often feel pressured if they are ‘undersized’ and feel the need to gain muscle mass to their bodies. As their bodies start to mature, the differences between their body shapes increase, which can put a lot of pressure on teens to avoid being either too heavy or too thin. They also tend to consume media – especially video games – with highly over-muscular and very tough, violent characters. Here are some teachable moments that may help your child with body acceptance:

  • If your tween is interested in weight training to build muscle or taking body supplements like protein shakes or bars, ask them the following questions:
    • What made you want to do this?
    • Weight training can be good for you, but too much of it can be unhealthy, and protein supplements are not made for tweens or teenagers. Do you know how to plan a healthy exercise regimen?
  • What are the male heroes like in the media you watch, read and play? How are they different from the men you know in the real world?
  • How do the heroes in the media you watch, read and play solve problems? What are some other ways of solving problems or being a hero? You can encourage boys to read about real-life heroes who embody the same values of courage and perseverance but who didn’t use violence to achieve their goals.

The good news is that parents can make a huge different by being positive and supportive of their kids and by setting a good example when it comes to body shape and fitness. We can also help by teaching them how to understand media messages about how we should look. Parents who engage in media alongside their children, and who encourage them to question or think about what they see or hear are setting the groundwork for healthy media habits. As the world comes together this summer, take time to teach your kids to ‘talk back’ to media through creative play, art and writing to help them work through the media messages they receive, and take charge of representations of themselves.