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Parents Must Shape ‘Body Talk’ Carefully

In such an appearance-obsessed culture, what messages do we parents want to give our children about the way they look? With all this “self-improvement” taking place around us, should I encourage my children to strive for their own perfect images, to appear to be all that they can appear to be?

For starters, take weight. While we wish for our children to be healthy and to avoid the medical problems associated with being overweight, at the same time we want them to be assured that they are OK at any size, that we love them no matter what the scales read. And we certainly want them to escape potential obsession with thinness and accompanying eating disorders. All of which makes for a bit of a mixed message for too heavy children: “You’re great as you are. Now lose weight. But not too much.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
In theory, the case for weight control can be made based on health alone, apart from consideration for appearance. Medical concern is not genuinely a factor, however, in other areas of physical dissatisfaction. For instance, there’s nothing I know of that’s particularly healthy about larger, shapelier breasts. We may joke about the surgical remakings of Phyllis Diller (actually she jokes about Phyllis Diller enough for all of us) and Cher. Other times we admire the results, as when I saw Goldie Hawn last spring at a taping of Jay Leno’s show. She’s gorgeous at almost 60—no doubt with a little help along the way.
 
If such help is good for those “in the business,” well, “Who’s better than us?” as my friend’s mother used to ask. We no longer have to go to Hollywood or Beverly Hills to be made over like the stars. These days, plenty of girls—”We love you just the way you are, but wouldn’t you rather be a 36D?”—are given augmented breasts as high school graduation gifts.
 
For the older crowd, cosmetic facial surgery is growing in popularity, leaving youngsters to witness fewer of the wrinkles formerly associated with the experience and wisdom of older generations. 
 
With a myriad of options available for altering one’s appearance, the truth is that for both adolescents and adults, it’s tough being a real person in this air-brushed and surgically redefined world. The tension between feeling OK as is and working to achieve a more perfect look, especially for women, is growing.
 
Even if your family is like mine, which (not counting circumcisions) has not yet had a surgeon’s knife alter any body parts, you may still be participating in the correction of nature’s work. Right now my family is wrapped up—literally—in dental image. My 13-year-old daughter just got braces, and today I took my 10-year old son for his initial orthodontic evaluation.
 
What’s the message for them? With some professional help—and a decent dose of pain and suffering, both financial and physical—you too, as your peers, can look better than your natural self. We may pretend it’s all about correcting a bite, but most of the time we and our insurance companies know it’s really about appearances.
 
A couple of years ago, when my daughter got her first pre-braces orthodontic appliance, I realized that for 30 years I had put off cosmetic dentistry to improve my own smile. I wondered about the implications of treating my children to orthodonture, while not caring to “fix” my own teeth. I’d thought about it off and on over the decades, but it was never important enough to me to actually do something. Besides, on some philosophical level I believed that people shouldn’t have to alter their original appearance in order to be accepted by themselves or others. 
 
Nevertheless, I now have four top front teeth that are normal-sized and fit together without gaps. A few friends noticed immediately. Others took longer. And others seem never to have caught on at all. In fact, my parents, siblings and in-laws—people who have known me the longest and the best—don’t really see the difference. I guess they really do love me any old way. (In fact, one of my children cried when told of my plans, apparently not wanting a changed mother.)
 
Dentistry, however, is only the tip of the cosmetic iceberg. Some days it seems to me, strangely, like every woman here in Oklahoma (which does have a plastic surgery rate higher than the national average) is well endowed—and I don’t think it’s necessarily from genes or the water. As I age, more of my peers are having other cosmetic procedures. In addition to vein treatments and botox injections, there are facelifts and eyelid jobs, tummy tucks and liposuction.
 
In such an appearance-obsessed culture, what messages do we parents want to give our children about the way they look? With all this “self-improvement” taking place around us, should I encourage my children to strive for their own perfect images, to appear to be all that they can appear to be?
 
I don’t have any answers, nor do I intend to judge the decisions of others. Perhaps, as with so many other issues, it’s a matter of degree. (I mean, most of us would agree that Michael Jackson has gone too far.) 
 
But let me suggest that we guard against being seduced and reduced to the point where we determine others’ worth by the straightness of their teeth or the smoothness of their skin or the size of their … noses. And perhaps more importantly, let’s not judge ourselves by these criteria. For if we do, such artificially high standards will become our children’s baselines, to their potential detriment.
 
And if we can’t accept ourselves as we are, our claims to love our children as they are may well lose their value.
 
Karen Johnson Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.

Buy Zurheide’s books from Amazon.com:
 
Learning with Molly
In Their Own Way: Accepting Your Children for Who They Are