Every year around July, when the summer season is in full swing, I put the feelers out for summer camp topics. It’s certainly that time of year. Here in the Red Lake area lots of young campers are either heading out of town or out for the day to meet new friends and learn new skills. Generally, summer camp topics are pretty predictable –recycled and repackaged from the year before: How to cope with the emotional void while your child is away, and how to handle that dreaded “I-hate-it-here!” phone call some parents receive part way through the week.
This year, though, I came across a summer camp topic I’d never read about before. Some camps in the U.S. (I couldn’t find any Canadian ones online), have implemented a new rule called “no body talk,” meaning campers are forbidden to talk about physical appearance – not even if they say positive things like, “you look nice today.”
One parent who sent her child to Eden Village Camp in New York state, was quoted by The New York Times as saying the rule makes it “this wonderful utopian kind of place where you’re not judged on anything except your spirit.”
Sounds pleasantly new age, doesn’t it? But it begs the question: how does that attitude prepare young people for the real world, as us grown ups say.
It doesn’t. When we overprotect and shelter kids, we don’t do them any favours. I’ve touched on this topic before, but if you’d like to delve into it further, and are also looking for a good laugh, check out CBC’s This is That satire on “ball-less soccer.” Funny stuff.
I stick by the argument that too many kids grow up with a false sense of security, with the adults in their lives constantly fluffing their pillows. When kids grow up thinking everyone who shows up to the race is a winner, they wind up leaving home for school or their first job – and like a soccer ball straight to the gut – they’re hit with how harsh and competitive life can be.
If we tell kids not to talk about something, they’re going to want to do it just that much more. Think about it, when you tell someone: “don’t look back!” What do they inevitably do? They crane their head around over their shoulder. Every time.
There is no doubt kids are becoming more aware of their physical appearance at a younger and younger age. Eating disorders among young people (particularly girls) are becoming more common too. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre says 40 per cent of nine-year olds in Canada have tried dieting to lose weight – a startling statistic.
I do think we’re a society obsessed with physical appearance, even when it comes to kids, and I do think we need to change that. But rather than forbidding body talk, I say we start making a conscious effort to shift the focus.
When I catch myself telling a young girl, “Your hair looks nice today” – which reinforces the idea that her value is tied to her physical appearance – I try thinking of other ways to compliment her like, “Wow, you light up the room with your laugh.” When you’re about to tell a friend, “You look great. Did you lose weight?” perhaps think about the consequences such a remark can have on his or her self-esteem. Adults should lead by example. Instead of complimenting others with words like cute, pretty, handsome, or skinny, we can use smart, funny, courageous, or creative.
We often blame media and advertising for our skewed definition of beauty. It’s true that fashion magazines and celebrities and their airbrushed bodies encourage an unrealistic and unattainable standard of beauty, but it’s ultimately up to us how we process that information and allow it to affect our lives and our choices.
If we don’t let kids talk about their bodies, and we pretend they don’t even exist by not acknowledging them, kids will inevitably become more ashamed of their bodies. We need to keep bodies in the conversation so kids develop the tools they need to stand on their own two feet as teens and adults.
Bullying is problematic, body talk is not.