Opal’s First Ever Body Image Workshop for Kids
“I’m excited to share some reflections after Lexi and I led our first girl’s body image workshop at Opal! We started this for our kids and their besties– It was hilarious and powerful! It gave us even more appreciation for the importance of equipping and empowering our youth.” -Kara
“Why do you have candy jars out?” I can’t recall how many times I’ve been asked this question at Opal. What strikes me is the variety of the mouths this question is spoken from. Friends. Family. Clients. This time the question came from a 9-year-old girl.
Over the course of our 5+ years, we’ve had many kids run around the Opal space. Our kids, sometimes the kids of our clients. This time, the girl who posed the candy question was at Opal for our first ever kids body image workshop.
Lexi and I recently had the absolute pleasure in spending two evenings with 11 girls ranging from the ages of 9-12 years old. I can’t wait to share with you about my learnings from hosting these young, bright, curious girls.
First, the backstory: I have 2 girls, Sophia (age 10) and Hannah (age 8). When it comes to the topic of body image, there is a lot of relevant background information that makes relationship to food and body image a central part of our family culture. Not only am I raising daughters in this food and body obsessed western culture, but I have gone through my own recovery process with an eating disorder. I’ve had to do the hard and brave work of body acceptance first and foremost! Secondly, I’ve been practicing as a mental health therapist since 2002, mainly focusing on food and body image concerns. Day in and day out, I have helped clients work through their own struggle to find more freedom in these areas. Needless to say, my girls have been exposed to a LOT of what I do. The common code word in my house is whether something is “Opal.” So, for example, they might come home from school reporting that a kid in the lunchroom said something that was not “Opal”. This could be a disparaging comment about food- “Cheese isn’t healthy because it has fat.” Or about thin privilege “_____(4th grade boy) likes _________(4th grade girl) because she is pretty and popular”. I secretly smile to myself because I can see the way they are questioning the cultural norms around food and body.
However, this year, I noticed another thing happening for me. I started to realize with my 4th grader that although she could be well equipped to question the culture’s insidious belief systems about food and body, she could also feel REALLY alone in the process if her peers aren’t sharing in her experience of questioning. That recognition spearheaded my interest in gathering my daughter’s close friends in the interest of teaching an alternative path to approaching food and body image. As I know from my own experiences, community is priceless.
About a year after this “aha” moment, I reached out to Lexi (who has an 11-year-old daughter) for accountability and got a couple dates on the books. I felt determined to offer this class before the end of the school year. Our agenda for the two evenings was quite lofty: Here were the main teaching points we felt were most significant:
- Our bodies change, especially in puberty
- Body shape largely is determined by genetics
- Your identity helps you feel good about yourself- it’s worth paying attention to
- Media is not representative of what people look like- be careful not to compare yourself
- Eating adequately is very important. There are no good and bad foods, they simply have different functions
- Movement is our birthright. We all have different and unique ways of moving
- Choose role models in your life that you admire for who they are inside and make you feel good about yourself
(We used Kathy Kater’s curriculum “Healthy Bodies” https://www.amazon.com/Healthy-Bodies-Teaching-Kids-What/dp/0615706886/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498687337&sr=8-1&keywords=kathy+kater and then adapted our lessons to fit our time constraints)
I wish I could share every last reflection I had during our time with the girls, but of all of them, these are the most meaningful:
Our girls are hungry for connection and truth. I had NO idea going into this workshop of whether the girls would find the topics boring, engaging, appropriate for their age and context, etc. I was completely inspired by their energy, questions, reflections and genuine connection to the topics. At the end of the last night, a few of the girls asked if we could do more classes and shared disappointment that we were done.
Girls in this age group have open minds and are less threatened to challenge cultural norms. This may seem obvious, but after working with adult women around these issues for the past 15 years, it was so refreshing and powerful to see how belief systems are shaping in youth and it’s the precious time where they are internalizing messages. What an important age to intervene for prevention!!!
When those who are suffering have an opportunity to help youth, a powerful exchange happens. In the midst of planning the workshop, I decided to have the women in our eating disorder treatment program write notes of encouragement to the young girls in the workshop- affirmation or advice they wish they would have heard when they were a 4th or 5th grader. We have done this exercise before in our Body Image group, but this was the first time that their messages were passed along to REAL, live kiddos. And, boy, I hit jackpot on that idea! I got to witness the impact on both ends. For our clients in treatment, they wrote the most incredible words of wisdom and were so touched that they could have an impact on a young girl by hearing messages that were never uttered to them. For the young girls, they felt so special that older women wrote a personal message to them! At the end of our first night, we asked the girls what takeaway message they left with. One of the 4th graders answered, “My takeaway message is this note. Can I bring it home?” All the while beaming with a smile filled with satisfaction. Here’s a sampling of the messages:
- You are wonderful how you are/who you are
- You do not have to be good. Your body and life are not meant to be an apology
- What you look like isn’t who you are. You are…your kindness, your brain, your character, your passions, your desires
- Take value in how amazingly your body functions and works for you
- Be curious about your body. Ask questions
At times, it must be hard to be my daughter. Funny, but also serious. I had high expectations for how my daughter would participate in this workshop. On the first night, I’m not going to lie, I was very upset with her. Of all the kids, she was chatting and distracting her friends sitting next to her. I felt hurt and disappointed. Here, I had worked so hard to create a meaningful experience for her and her friends and she was disrespecting me! But, once I had a little space and distance, I really could connect with empathy that we were both in uncharted territory. We were talking about intimate things with her best friends, learning from her mom. Yikes! Of course she felt anxious. And, although I would like her to have good listening skills, I was humbled by the reality of realizing she too was anxious for this experience. Oh, the learning moments as a mom!
I feel inspired to share this with you, reader, to give a window into this incredible experience and plant a seed of how having conversations about body shape, food, identity, media with your kids is so needed in our world right now. By default, they will take what our culture is dishing them and create their own belief systems based on interpretations and connections they are making in their developing brains. Let’s help teach our youth and get ahead of the culture. Let’s equip them to be skeptical in a healthy way. Let’s support one another as parents to offer resources and a listening ear. And, for those parents who entrusted their kiddos to us, thank you for the gift of their greatness for who they are.