14 Books to Promote A Healthy Body Image

Reading about characters who are comfortable in their own skins helps kids learn self-acceptance. By Regan McMahon
14 Books to Help Kids Feel Good About Themselves and Their Bodies

We all want to find entertaining reads for our kids and tweens, but unfortunately, even some of the best stories reinforce body and gender stereotypes. You know the ones: girl characters judged by how pretty they are; boys teased if they’re not big and strong; boys and girls dissed for being overweight or having freckles or the “wrong” color hair or skin; good-looking protagonists who often have a chubby or scrawny sidekick who’ll never be considered cool or attractive. And so on.

But we’ve found some shining examples of books featuring characters who are comfortable with their bodies, no matter their size or shape. They’re appreciated for their talent, skills, and integrity, and they don’t trade on their looks to get ahead. Check out our full list of body-positive books starring kids (and animals) who are at ease in their own skin — or who learn that’s the way to be truly cool. We’ve highlighted some of our very favorites here:

  • Brontorina, by James Howe and illustrated by Randy Cecil, age 4+. When a brontosaurus shows up at ballet class, some of the students insist, “You are too big!” But the open-minded ballet teacher decides the problem is that her studio is too small — and moves the class outdoors. It’s a lighthearted lesson about not letting your size or shape prevent you from following your dream.
  • Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle, age 4+. This charming, wordless picture books feature a spunky yet graceful little girl. Flora has a pear-shaped body, yet does a pas de deux with a flamingo. So many images in books, movies, magazines, and ads feature young girls with slim bodies; it’s nice to see an image of a girl with a round tummy who’s athletic, graceful, and creative.
  • Firebird, by Misty Copeland, age 5+. A young girl who wants to be a dancer but has a low self-image and almost gives up before ballet great Misty Copeland inspires and mentors her to reach her full potential. This exuberant picture book emphasizes hard work and self-discovery.
  • Freckleface Strawberry, by Julianne Moore and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, age 5+. The main character feels self-conscious about her freckles, especially when other kids make comments and give her a nickname she doesn’t like. The final message isn’t that her freckles are beautiful but that maybe they don’t matter. More important, it’s that people are happier when they accept who they are and what they look like.
  • Ivy + Bean, by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, age 6+. Two “opposite” 7-year-old girls become best friends in the first of a wonderful 10-volume series. Bean is a rough-and-tumble tomboy who wears pants and a T-shirt and gets dirty; Ivy wears dresses, thinks a lot, and is always reading books. They appreciate each other’s qualities, and the kids in their neighborhood appreciate them for their individuality and imagination.
  • Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child, by Maria T. Lennon, age 8+. Charlie is comfortable with her out-of-shape body (while trying to make healthy food choices) and confident in her bold sense of style in this light middle school tale. In the sequel, Watch Out, Hollywood!: More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child, she tries out for a TV show and kids tease her about her body, but the TV people admire her for being comfortable with her shape. It’s a refreshingly positive body-image message to find in a book about middle school.
  • The Littlest Bigfoot, by Jennifer Weiner, age 8+. A lonely human girl strikes up a friendship with a girl from a secret Bigfoot tribe in this light fantasy about two girls who feel like outcasts in their families. It has strong messages about respecting people who seem different and appreciating that they have unseen strengths and struggles.
  • Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit, by Octavia Spencer, age 8+. Randi moves to a new town and becomes best friends with two boys who also are outsiders; one is bullied for being hearing impaired but is as passionate about martial arts as Randi is,and the other is lanky, into music, and super smart. Together the diverse pals — Randi’s white, and her friends are Latino and African-American — solve a mystery using brains and the occasional Bruce Lee move.
  • Blubber, by Judy Blume, age 9+. An overweight girl is teased mercilessly by some classmates, and no one stands up for her in this brutally honest look at (pre-Internet-era) bullying among fifth-graders. The novel doesn’t spell out moral lessons but teaches kids by portraying repugnant behavior and showing the value of true friendship and courage under peer pressure.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth, by Jeff Kinney, age 9+. Middle schooler Greg Heffley goes through puberty in this series installment and suffers the indignity of teeth-fixing head gear. He deals with it all through humor and utter cluelessness, as always. He may not become more accepting of himself, but kids reading about his travails understand that everyone goes through this stage and that you can have a good laugh at the embarrassing stuff.
  • Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith, by Gabby Douglas and Michelle Burford, age 10+. This moving memoir shows the Olympic gymnast’s dedication in the face of homelessness, bullying, and having a coach tell her she should get a nose job. Gabby stays focused, works hard, and accepts herself as she is, even as she strives for greatness.
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson, age 12+. A plump princess is chosen by God (in a fictional religion) for a special unknown task. She begins the book as intelligent but insecure and afraid and ends it confident and powerful.  Rising to challenges and having faith in yourself are big lessons here — as is the message that a girl of any size can be a respected and capable leader.
  • In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow, age 12+. This exciting graphic novel portrays girls as skilled online gamers. Main character Anda is a teen gamer who learns about harsh working conditions in other parts of the world. She’s smart, competent, and compassionate, both in real life and as her online avatar.

About Regan McMahon

Regan has been reviewing children’s books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page… Read more

THE GROCERY LINE, THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE, AND KIDS

Girls Leadership

Simone Marean thinks we can turn Sports Illustrated Swimsuit‘s controversial cover into a powerful, teachable moment with our kids.

Sports Illustrated is doing us a big favor. Next week they are releasing a swimsuit issue cover that showcases such an absurdly unrealistic version image of “beauty” that can serve us adults as a teachable moment for us, and our kids. Because they are making sure that this image is everywhere, everyone will have the opportunity to join in. In her powerful post, Melissa Atkins Wardy shared Brendan Ripp’s intention, “Sports Illustrated has never tried to launch something this big in the experiential space.” Thanks, Brendan.

Given that we will have little choice but to see this cover in the grocery check out line, pharmacy cashier or convenient store, let’s seize the opportunity to help those youth who see this image learn just what this cover is and how it works. This isn’t to shame Hannah Davis for taking this modeling job, that is her adult choice, but rather prevent some of the negative impact that images such as these have on young people, such as the increasing early sexualization of girls.

*The full version of the magazine cover is shown below*


Here’s a conversation guide to help turn seeing this magazine cover into an opportunity to co-consume media together and connect through dialogue rather than giving the image power through silence. Please adjust to the age of your child:

ON OBJECTIFICATION:

Question (to ask your child): That’s a weird image. The magazine is called Sports Illustrated. Why would Sports Illustrated put a woman on the cover who isn’t playing any sport?

Talking Points (to weave into your half of the conversation):

  • Sports Illustrated tends to show men playing sports, and more often shows women not as athletes, but as something for men to look at. While the athletes (men and women) are shown doing something they practice, something they are really skilled at and enjoy doing, these images of women just capture what they look like. We don’t know anything about this woman, Hannah Davis.
  • When we look at people like this, we objectify them. Objectify means to degrade something or somebody to the status of a mere object.

Question: What is the difference between a person, a human, and an object, like a toy?

Talking Points:

  • An object is a thing. You can do whatever you want to it. It can be controlled, bought and sold. The difference is that person has thoughts and feelings. Actions impact them. You can’t and shouldn’t buy and sell or control people – this turns them into objects.
ON MEDIA LITERACY:

Question: Does this photo look realistic? How do they make photos look unreal?

Talking Points:

  • This is not a realistic photo.
  • Sports Illustrated used computers and software to change her image. They cut away at the edges of her image to make her smaller, they colored over her skin and face, to remove all her blemishes, wrinkles, and body hair until she doesn’t look like a living person any more. She looks like a doll.
  • Check out Dove’s Evolution video to quickly see how the photo editing process works.

Question: Why would a company, like Sports Illustrated, objectify Hannah?

Talking Points:

  • The more magazines they sell, the more money they make.
  • They believe that if she looked like a human person, people wouldn’t spend $20 to look at her, and that people are more likely to spend $20 to own an unrealistic, objectified image.
ON US:

Question: How does this image hurt girls who have no choice but to see it?

Talking Points:

  • The cover teaches girls that this is what “beauty” looks like, that this is what they should look like if they want others to find them attractive.
  • Since it is fake, it is teaching girls to see themselves more like objects to be desired (if they are skinny, busty and hairless enough) than like people.
  • Studies have shown that when girls look at photo shopped images like this cover, it takes one to three seconds for them to have a drop in their self-esteem. And, on average, girls are seeing almost 3,000 – 5,000 of these images a day!

Question: How does this hurt boys who have no choice but to see it?

Talking Points:

  • The cover teaches boys to desire girls as if they were objects.
  • This can make it harder for boys to be friends with girls and to understand that girls are people with feelings, interests, and thoughts.
  • It also teaches boys that “beauty” for girls is skinny, busty and hairless — like the magazine made Hannah look in this photo.

Question: So what can we do?

Talking Points:

  • You can see this cover for the laughable image that it is, turn it over so the person behind you in line doesn’t have to see it, not buy it, share your feelings online (#notbuyingit), scrunch up your face so you remember that you are fully a messy human person and go back to the important things in life, like how good that food in your grocery cart is going to be.

Girls’ Clothing: A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy

Here’s an interesting New York Times article about the “sexualization” of girls through popular clothing, and strategies parents can use to help their daughters dress modestly.  Thank goodness for a school uniform!

Anastasia Vasilakis
By BRUCE FEILER
Published: May 10, 2013

It first happened to me this spring. My daughters, who had just turned 8, came bounding into the room to show off new outfits they were wearing to an extended-family gathering. My eyes bulged. The dresses drooped provocatively off the shoulder and offered other peekaboos of their bodies. Sure, as a parent, I figured I would one day face clothing battles with my children. Politicians aren’t the only ones who draw red lines.

But so soon?

As a father, I find these conversations particularly challenging. On the one hand, I’ve internalized all the messages that I should not criticize my daughters’ bodies, compliment them merely for their looks, or in any way stifle their emerging sexuality. On the other hand, I don’t want them to leave the house dressed as pole dancers.

For years, I had what I thought was a sly way of handling this issue. Whenever my daughters modeled a new piece of clothing, I would say: “I don’t care what you wear. I care who you are.” But recently they’ve begun throwing my line back at me: “But I thought you didn’t care what we wear!”

Time to get some new lines.

The issue of appropriate clothing for girls has been the subject of increasing academic and popular scrutiny, fed by skimpy panties printed with “wink wink” or skinny leggings that say “cute butt sweat pants.” In 2007, Walmart bowed to parental pressure and pulled pairs of pink girls’ underwear off its shelves because they were printed with the words “Who needs credit cards …” on the front and “When you’ve got Santa” on the back.

Sarah K. Murnen, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College, said parents today face greater challenges than those in the past because girls’ clothing has become more sexualized. “Some people say it’s due to an increased pornification of culture,” Professor Murnen said, “where the easy availability of pornography on the Internet has made its way into styles and popular culture.” She cited thong underwear, push-up bras and leather miniskirts for first to fifth graders as examples.

In a 2011 study, Professor Murnen evaluated 5,666 items of girls’ clothing on 15 popular Web sites to determine whether they were “childlike,” “sexualizing” or “adultlike.” She found that 29.4 percent of items were judged to have “sexualizing characteristics,” including more than half of dresses and two-thirds of swimsuits. In a separate study of girls’ magazines, she found that the percentage of provocative clothing had more than doubled since 1971.

Professor Murnen said that this trend was particularly alarming because her research indicates that when adults look at girls dressed in sexualized clothing, they take them less seriously. “Teachers are looking at these girls and assuming they aren’t intelligent,” she said.

Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and the author of “Your Daughter’s Bedroom,” said girls today are unprepared to withstand sophisticated efforts by corporations that prey on girls’ desire to be popular. “As parents, we’re so afraid to talk honestly with our daughters about their sexuality that we end up leaving them out in the cold,” she said.

The American Psychological Association grew so alarmed with the objectification of girls in popular culture that in 2005 it set up a task forceSharon Lamb, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a member of the task force, said her hope was that their two reports “would bring attention to marketers and media to be more reflective about the kinds of girls they were presenting.”

Unfortunately, she said, the reports added pressure on parents to be more vigilant. “I don’t think it’s parents’ fault that they are ‘allowing their kids to walk around like this,’ ” she said. “There’s so much being done through peer culture that it’s a real struggle for parents not to be meanies and come across as antisexuality.”

So what is a worried parent to say? I suggested five possible retorts from girls and asked for guidance.

“EVERYBODY DOES IT.” “Ooh, that’s a rough one,” Ms. McFadden said, “because it’s the precursor to ‘Well, Johnny is freebasing’ or ‘So-and-so gets to stay out until 4 in the morning.’ You have to say, ‘Well, in our family we do things differently.’ ” The critical step, she said, is for parents to make sure they are on the same page before approaching their children. “You’re going to have to compromise on some pieces of clothing,” she said. “I had to give in on push-up bras with my daughter. But don’t let these items take over her wardrobe.”

“IT’S THE ONLY THING THEY SELL.” Ms. Lamb, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood,” said children who make that observation have a point. “Still, you have to state your values,” she said. “You have to say: ‘I don’t want to see you and your friends buying into these marketers’ schemes to sell teenage stuff to younger and younger kids. It’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The marketers are the body snatchers, and I’m going to fight them.’ ”

“YOU’RE SUCH A SQUARE.”Professor Murnen agreed that parents need to embrace their old-fashioned standards. “I’m not a conservative person,” she said. “But when it came to my daughter, I told her I hope she developed a wonderful body image and a healthy sexuality but that I didn’t think that’s what sexy clothes were doing.” Professor Murnen said she even adjusted her own fashion choices. “I personally like attractive clothing,” she said, “but I’m careful not to wear clothing with sexualizing characteristics, because I do feel like I need to be a role model for my students.”

“MOM WEARS THESE THINGS, WHY NOT ME?”Ms. McFadden said it’s fair to point out to girls that as they get older, they will have more freedom to make their own decisions. “Our generation of parents are such sissies when it comes to setting boundaries,” she said. “Parents concede to their children’s whims to make their children happy, but those children don’t grow up to be happy, because they have no internal compass. These limits are what make healthy, happy adults possible.”

“FINE, BUT I’M JUST GOING TO CHANGE WHEN I GET TO SCHOOL.” Ms. Lamb said her response to girls who threaten to peel off layers once they leave the house would be to redirect the conversation. “I would say, ‘I’m not interested in controlling what you wear,’ ” she said. “ ‘I’m interested in getting you thinking about what it means to be an attractive person.’ ” She said she often tells her teenage students that the species would die out if boys only wanted to have sex with girls who looked like Victoria’s Secret models. “We’re built to be attracted to people with different looks, with different personalities, with different talents, senses of humor and lots of wonderful things,” she said.

As for us, the night my daughters first flashed their approaching tweendom, my wife quickly heeded the message. Shawls were procured, and those once-revealing dresses soon became more age appropriate. With a little hunting, my wife and daughters located some Web site that sold attractive clothes with more modest, yet trendy-enough slogans: “I Love Music” and “Bee-You-Tiful” with a bumblebee.

Still, we had been warned. The big battles are yet to come. Ms. McFadden said we should stay strong. “You have to remember,” she said, “you’re raising a person who’s going to live a whole life. Just because one episode doesn’t go well doesn’t mean an accumulation of similar messages won’t somehow trickle down. You just have to be brave, let them have the freedom they deserve, but still set guidelines that represent your family’s values.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 12, 2013, on page ST2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy.