Dear KJ: How Can I Be a Body-Positive Role Model for Young Girls?
"Dear KJ" is a weekly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20, The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR's "Tell Me More," and "On Air with Ryan Seacrest," among others. Find her at kjerstingruys.com.
What is the best thing I can do as a 20-something woman who has recovered from eating disorders to help young girls establish good body image?
The best thing you can do to help young girls establish good body image is the same as what anyone else can do: be a role model for healthy body image and for having a healthy relationship with food. This means committing to talk about your body and other women's bodies in nonjudgmental ways, resisting fat talk, resisting diet talk and openly embracing and celebrating a wide variety of body shapes and sizes. Sometimes, this means faking it until you make it by resisting negative body talk and diet talk, even when you're struggling with negative body thoughts yourself. But, believe it or not, committing to being a role model for younger women can also empower you in your own health.
Learning to view myself as a role model for other women—particularly for my female college students—has been one of my most powerful tools for staying healthy and appreciating myself. To me, being a role model has never meant being "perfect." We have plenty of “perfect” role models out there in our popular culture of fables, fairy tales and romantic comedies, telling young women and girls that success, happiness and love can only be theirs if they look like Barbie dolls and make it their life’s work to please others.
Weird, nerdy girls don’t get the guy until they've had a makeover, which for some reason always involves ditching her glasses (What is it that they say? “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”)! This is not what I want for my students and other young women. I want them to take their unique lives, unique bodies and unique minds and stride confidently along their own paths. I want them to find love and embrace it, rather than doubt it. I want them to revel in their quirks, and say PHOOEY! to people and media who tell them they need to look or act a certain way in order to be happy. I can't truly encourage my students to do this while being a slave to the same systems I'm critiquing. (And it's not like students don't notice when their teachers are trying to look like Barbie dolls!)
Because of this, I think that imperfect women who have fabulous lives make great role models. So, when I consciously try to be a role model, I relish in being as vibrantly imperfect and quirky —yet successful, loved and happy—as possible. I believe that being a role model in this way is good for my students and the other young women in my life, and I know that it's been good for me. Numerous times when I’ve been tempted to go on a crash diet—or to otherwise look perfect and act perfectly composed and put together—I’ve talked myself out of it simply by reminding myself of how badly I want to prove to my girls that quirky, chubby, bossy, outspoken, clumsy, weird girls can absolutely achieve professional success, wonderful friends and fabulous love.