Are our children beautiful enough?

A while ago, I asked my son what he wants to be when he grows up.

“I want to be fat,” he answered without hesitation.

“Like the Daddy in the Simpsons,” he explained.

“Like Obelix the Gaul,” he emphasised.

“Like him”, he exclaimed in delight when he saw Japanese hammer thrower Koji Murofushi in the Olympics. “Big, fat and very strong!” He delightedly launched his foam rubber hammer across the living room, imitating the throwing technique with uncanny accuracy.

I am sometimes glad I don’t have a daughter. I have a friend whose 10 year old daughter is already worrying about being thin. She leaves half her dinner sometimes. She compares herself to the skinny girls at school and wishes she looked like them.

Half of me is not surprised about this. When you turn on Italian TV, this is what you typically see:

Not surprisingly, this is the doing of Berlusconi, who owns most Italian TV channels and, while president, indirectly controlled the rest.

The other half of me is shocked in disbelief that prepubescent children are already imposing this unhealthy nonsense on each other. At their age, dieting not only risks infertility and stunted growth but also irreparable organ damage. Children watch whatever adults watch nowadays. They copy everything with that total lack of criticism or judgement that is… well, typical of children.

The Italians used to be famous for their love of curvaceous women with big boobs, rounded hips and womanliness all over. Until recently, it was mandatory in all Italian movies for there to be one scene where the heroine, in her dangerously low-cut top, gets really pissed off about something and stomps away on her six inch heels, her boobs shown in close-up wobbling like a pair of jellies.

Sofia Loren
Gina Lollobrigida

Not any more. Nowadays, even in Italy, it’s all about being thin. That means the women often get false boobs, which as we all know can’t wobble even if their owner goes trampolining naked.

I know, Marilyn: you’re not the only one turning in your grave.

One of the things we women often tell each other, and which older women always tell younger girls whom they think are diet obsessed, is that men don’t like those anorexic model types. They want “something to get hold of”, we reassure each other. They like womanly women with boobs and curves, we claim hopefully.

But I am afraid that’s not true any more. Men’s opinions are influenced by the media just as much as women’s. Seeing skinny actresses playing the role of the sex symbol gives men their idea of the kind of woman who will impress their friends, and thus, the kind of woman they want to date. Does anyone formulate their beauty ideal independently of the culture they live in? Almost nobody.

Elisabetta Canalis: to be a sex symbol these days, you’ll need to be so thin your ribs look like a xylophone, then purchase two pouches of silicone to cushion them.

As I said, I am glad I don’t have to worry about this. I’m glad to be the Mum of a little boy whose ambition is to be a fat and very strong hammer thrower. And, my God, he is so beautiful! Sometimes, I look at him when he’s sleeping, and I get tears in my eyes to think how lucky I am.

We humans have always loved beauty. We have always wanted to be more beautiful. We have always favoured people we find beautiful and we always will. The only thing that changes over time is our definition of what is beautiful. Once it was this:

The Three Graces by Rubens. Note that the total removal of pubic hair has come back in, so maybe cellulite will soon have a fashion revival too

Nowadays, it’s this:

Angelina Jolie: voted the World’s Most Beautiful Woman many times, by many journalistic publications

It seems we can find just about any shape of human beautiful provided other humans tell us to do so. But can our definition of beauty please fall within the parameters of healthy?

Any responsible parent stops their children seeing sex or violence on TV. They are unsuitable for children. But what about those images that shape their idea of what is beautiful? Do we ever stop to consider if those are suitable?

As parents, we cannot just tell our teenage girls “Men like curves” or “Dieting at your age is unhealthy.” If we ever need to say that to them, it’s too late. Their beauty ideal has already been formed.

Good role models for YOUR daughter?

I don’t have to worry about having an anorexic daughter in the future. But I don’t want a git of a son either. I have decided to take control of what my boy sees on TV.

I do not allow terrestrial Italian TV to be switched on while my son is awake. I do not want my living room filled with images of unhealthily thin women dancing about in bikinis beside ugly old men who praise their beauty patronisingly, then ignore them while presenting a programme about what passes for politics in Italy.

My son may only be interested in cartoons so far, but what goes on in the background does influence children from the first day they see a television. I do not want my son to think that sexism is acceptable. I do not want him to think being thin equals being beautiful. I am determined that he will not grow up judging girls by how self-disciplined they are about dieting to below their natural weight.

Some Italian TV bimbos whom my son will never see; these women perform occasional 2-minute dances on a show in which two fully clothed, ageing men talk for two hours about current events.

I know a lot of other families in Italy who have made the same decision. I know some families who do not allow their teenage daughters to buy fashion magazines. And the number of parents making the same choices is growing. If all parents did that, the peer pressure at school would stop. If we all boycotted the fashion magazines and the unsuitable TV shows, they would eventually disappear.

We can blame the media but, in the end, we as parents CAN have control over what influences our children. We just have to take it.

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19 thoughts on “Are our children beautiful enough?

  1. can’t watch Italian TV any more when I go to Italy. Every programme is just like Page 3 in the Sun newspaper. My Mum tells me that – typically – when small kids get asked “what do you want to be when you grow up”, boys reply “footballer”, girls reply “velina” (ie one of those skinny girls pictured above). That’s the next generation… 😦

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    1. Yes, I’ve been told the same, that so many girls dream of becoming a “velina”.
      Women went out and protested against this Berlusconi-led objectification of women in all the major cities of Italy, but in the end it took Monti and his austere techocratic government to tone things down a bit on Italian TV… or so I am told, as I don’t see Italian TV any more.
      Though I think it is too little, and too late for one whole generation of girls.

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  2. Good luck on trying to “have control over what influences our children.” Counter intuitive though it may be children get socialized mainly by their peers not by their parents. Consequently the last and best shot that parents get at influencing their children is choosing who their kids go to school with.

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    1. I don’t think you can solve this by selecting a “good” school. In Sicily, any state school means your child mixes with all types, and a private school means lots of their peers will be rich Mafia kids in designer gear with iPods in their pockets from the age of about 7. This isn’t a uniquely Sicilian problem either. My nephew goes to an expensive (and excellent) school in England and his classmates include a lot of *inexplicably* rich Russian boys. So it still comes down to actually trying to help your child pick out individual friends from the mix – which is of course developing an important skill of good judgement which they will need in adult life.

      I think the amount of influence exerted by parents vs. peers partly depends on how determined and how cunning the parents are. My mother had far more influence over me than any of my peers, and she didn’t do this by forcefully selecting my friends or lecturing me, for example.
      She took me to a park where junkies were injecting themselves with drugs when I was young enough to be terrified and have bad dreams from it, casually made a few explanatory comments on the way home, and that lesson sunk in so deeply I have still never even tried a cigarette to this day and spent my student years declining to drink alcohol. Whenever we saw people doing obviously unpleasant jobs (public toilet attendants, men going down sewers in the street etc) she would mention, once out of earshot, that those poor people had to work terribly hard doing horrible jobs because they hadn’t worked hard enough at school and hadn’t passed their exams; and she asked if I wanted to work really hard at shool, or really hard for my whole life after school.
      I’d have no hesitation in using similar methods on my son if it seems necessary when he’s old enough.

      Keeping kids away from Mafia contacts is the biggest issue in Sicily for any parent. We have the same problems as any other parent, but writ truly large. My mother in law brought my husband and his brothers up in what is notoriously one of the worst Mafia areas of Palermo. They have metal shutters over their windows and when he was a kid those were always lowered at 6pm, which was when everyone in the neighbourhood imposed a curfew to protect their families from stray bullets. He does recall walking around a dead body in the street once on his way to school. The way my MIL kepot her kids out of trouble was by insisting that they all had hobbies that kept them occupied every waking hour when outside school. They all did cycle racing (my hubby became the Sicilian junior champion) and piano lessons etc. She always told them to be careful they found out about the families of any kid they wanted to make friends with and she carried out background checks on any child they wanted to associate with in their free time.
      I am already doing the same for my son, selecting his friends myself.
      It’s not hard to impose this on kids in Sicily because everyone does it.

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  3. You are doing the right thing. The less of popular media junk your child is exposed to, the more your own influence will count. That is how we raised our sons and it seems to have worked well. I hope we would have been as successful with daughters, but we will never know.

    My own bodily self-esteem was greatly buoyed earlier this year when I finally got to see lots of ancient Roman statues in Italy and discovered that I mostly look like all those marble women, who were neither fat nor thin. Those Romans must have had good taste, huh? (I am half Italian/Sicilian)

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  4. I agree with you 100% and TVs in Australia are no better. They have all skinny girls in every program as well as series and they wonder why we still have anorexia and eating disorder.
    I am grown women and it still affect how I think. It has made me think that I am not good enough as I haven’t got washboard flat abs like the girls on the TV. I can’t even imagine how young boys and girls will be affected by this.
    One day when I become a mum like you, I will be monitoring what my kids watch so they grow up to be a healthy individual.

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    1. It’s true, I used to feel a bit insecure myself when I was still watching all that junk on TV but now I have censored it in my house, I am a lot more self confident. I really think I look fine, now I am not comparing myself to something way off the scale of normal.

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    1. Oh gosh, I’m only a woman. These individuals don’t make such a memorable impression on us as they do on you folk with testosterone in you. For example, seeing La Cucinotta on telly just reminds me I’ve got a couple of watermelons in the fridge that need slicing up.

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  5. Since we moved (in February) we’ve never actually connected our TV up to any kind of receiving device, so the kids couldn’t watch telly here if they tried. That said, my 3 year old daughter likes to watch You Tube videos of motorcycles jumping and people shooting moose.

    Her current answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” is “a hunter”. She even knows where you should aim to shoot various different animals. Including clowns, which, as everyone knows, you should shoot in the ass (I may have taught her that one)

    Her previous answer to that question was “heavy metal drummer”. I wonder what’s coming next?

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  6. I wonder if what we are attracted to is conditioned by what we see projected as beautiful by media. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find the bimbos attractive.
    There has always been a stark difference in the kind of actresses that feature in North Indian and South Indian films. While slim women have always been preferred in North India, the Southern films have always preferred some fat on their women. Wonder what explains this difference in choices of men.

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    1. Are they poorer in the south of India? In Europe in the past, they liked plump women because there were so many people who didn’t get enough to eat that being well-fed was a sign of wealth and health. I wonder if that could be the situation in India?

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  7. Interesting post. I agree with your dislike (/’The ‘I wish it was different’ sentiment.) But I think we are all a product of our environments & our responses to them. Kids will be exposed to things whether parents try to control them or not – because (at least) one of their friends has older siblings; or parents who have different, more lax opinions. I am not a parent, but having worked with young kids (well, ages 5-15 across different settings: camp counselor, rainbow/brownie/guide/ scout leader/ gymnastics coach/ dance teacher – so almost always girls), I see what they know, what friends tell them, what older siblings tell them & how they interact with peers away from parents. I admit I don’t think banning things is helpful. It makes them taboo and therefore more desirable, especially to older kids & teenagers. Having an open dialogue seems to create well-rounded kids. Watching ‘my girls’ from camp grow up on Facebook, the ones who were friends with their parents were the ones not posting drunk, party girl photos at 15, dressing inappropriately, or talking about body image – which is mostly never really to do with what they see in the media when it reaches anorexia or bulimia. The ones with healthy parental relationships were more stable and confident in themselves.

    I can’t speak for Italian tv (although tbh, it doesn’t look much different from anywhere else when I do see tv…. I think more shows are featuring more diverse actors in shape, size, ethnicity etc. – especially TV shows, as a lot of attention has been drawn to it in recent years in Hollywood – things like ‘Girls’ & ‘The Mindy Project’ are great for that). I don’t really watch TV often – I prefer to watch things online, e.g. programmes I want to see via Netflix – it drives me crazy when people just have tv on for the sake of it! (plus background noise plus conversation = headaches…urgh) – ; I get my news from multiple sources, am exposed to a wider choice of anything online, I feel. I did (because of my brother-in-law!) recently stumble across ‘naked attraction’ – a late night channel 4 programme where a guy picks a girl (& vice versa) from 3 girls/guys, visible only from the neck down & completely naked – not supermodels, normal people (using a very broad use of ‘normal’ there…normal bodies!). There was a definite curious fascination about it – although once is probably enough!

    Back on point, as a young teenager, or ‘tweenager’, my friends used to keep their magazines at my house if they weren’t allowed them (my parents didn’t know that…). I learned lots from reading magazines as a teenager though – there isn’t a focus on skinny models in them, for me I was looking at the clothes, not the models – but articles about safe sex & other empowering information is on there along with new fashions and makeup tips. Our guy friends used to read them too, because there was no ‘guy magazines’ to teach them the same things. My parents never really censored what I read, or what I watched (although I never watched much tv), but my mum would always discuss things with me. I always felt my friends who were not allowed to do things were the ones who rebelled & got into trouble. Within reason/ ‘age appropriate-ness’; I was rarely not allowed to do things, so nothing was really rebelling or specifically attractive because of that. I think as soon as something is forbidden, there is a greater appeal – not just for kids!

    Angelina Jolie is interesting…. so she has been ‘awarded’ the ‘most beautiful woman’ award various times, but there is much more to her – I don’t usually follow celebrity news, but….. I’m actually not sure where I read this – I read an interview with her about her choice to have a double mastectomy and full hysterectomy because her mother died, I think in her 40s, of breast cancer, and she carries multiple genetic markers that would make her more susceptible to breast cancer & ovarian cancer. There was a lot in the article about beauty/ femininity / cultural norms etc. & the choices she made. She was very emphatic about it being more important to her that she was here, alive, healthy, for her children than keep her ‘conventional beauty’ & she expressed the opinion that in having the double mastectomy, it wasn’t about choosing what made her feel feminine, but that she felt she was getting rid of this potential deathtrap that was a part of her (sort of…. she probably didn’t use the word deathtrap…. from memory here!). It could have been the New York Times or it could have been Vogue (Yes, l love glossy fashion magazines!) She got a lot of attention for her decision when she went public about it & a lot of credit for bringing it into a mainstream conversation – whatever I read also interviewed other women who had made the decision and were grateful for someone with such a public profile not just speaking out about it, but ‘owning it’ – it was about taking control of her body in the way she wanted. She’s quite an advocate for body positive image, doing what you want with your body, in interviews. I don’t know if she’s naturally skinny or really works on it, but in interviews she talks on a much deeper level.

    I also saw the more recent ‘photoshoot’ some magazine published that featured photographs Brad Pitt took of his family (a keen photographer apparently); that included her & their children. It also discussed her body – some photos were artistically intimate – e.g. after giving birth & how HE helped her feel more confident about her changed body – things she was self conscious of that he didn’t care about, they were there because she carried his child-sort of comments (that sounds sexist, it didn’t come across that way the interview). Like I said, I really don’t usually even know who most celebrities even are (my dad knows more, Internet Explorer makes MSN his home page *laughs* – really not kidding!), but I think with her, she has talked about less conventional ‘beauty topics’ that have made for more interesting reading and different perspectives to body image.

    For me I think of all those things when I see her in this context. Although I’m ‘fan girl-ing’ all over her, I’ve just read things that go way deeper – these are probably the only things I’ve read about her! I still get your point, but she has a deeper story, as I’m sure many do.

    The world of gymnastics is rife with eating disorders – not to be skinny for fashion, but small and light enough to ‘fly’. I think it’s an outdated practice now (I hope), but elite gyms used to weigh their gymnasts weekly, it’s in a few biographies /autobiographies. And of course, keeping almost pure muscle mass is essential. I saw more problems there, growing up, & then especially coaching, than in ‘real life’ with friends at school/uni.

    I’ll also add, what I said in the beginning – I wasn’t just let out in the world to figure all that out. I would say my parents were strict in many ways ‘?- respect, manners, school etc., but I was allowed to sort of figure many things out for myself too. I worked in a pharmacy (Saturdays/ holidays) for my mum’s boss who owned a small local chain. Very occasionally I worked with my mum. There were methadone patients in the shop & there were definite learning curves there. Learning to drive, we were first on the scene of an accident & my mum made me drive home afterwards – major learning curve…. a really steep one! I joke with her now, over specific things like those & say they weren’t just ‘learning’ they were pretty harsh!! But they were all life lessons, sort of similar to the ones you describe with your mum only maybe circumstantially a bit more self-discovery & organic.

    I’m sure your son will be a good person because of the example YOU (& hubby) set, not because of what he sees on TV ot from friends. And really, when he gets a bit older, I’m quite sure he’ll be like almost any other teenage boy out there – if a girl likes him, he really won’t be judgmental, he’ll be delighted!! 😀

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