I was underweight as a young girl, and well-meaning adults either assumed I was not eating, or gushed at how I was “so slim”. They frequently commented about the shape of my eyes and my changing body as I was undergoing puberty. The comments and media portrayals of beauty and health standards at the time left me with the message that how my body (and body parts) looked to others mattered more than how I felt and looked. Worst of all, I had internalised the normalising of body judgement, and naively used hurtful labels on others, some of which I learnt from watching cartoons.
Though I began to know and do better as I grew up, it was through dancing that I came to understand body appreciation, which includes having a favourable opinion about one’s body despite its physical appearance. I was dancing in communities with diverse dancers and body types, most of whom did not conform to a singular stereotype – that of an able-bodied, thin, tall, young and fair skinned female with long hair. After becoming a parent, I felt a greater imperative to teach my child appreciation and respect for our own bodies and those of others.
When my friend Bernice Lee and I started Rolypoly Family in 2018, a dance and education company, we wanted to support children in their artistic and social-emotional development. We wanted to leave them with an increased sense of body appreciation and awareness, and thus, a healthier body image. Here are three ways that we do this:
There are many factors that impact children’s body image: any illness or chronic pain they may have, what they can or cannot physically do, what others say about their bodies or skin tone, and so on.
If a child were to express unhappiness about a certain body part, instead of saying “But it’s beautiful”, we might listen, try to understand, and then we could eventually ask what they know about that body part, or another that they may feel happier talking about.
Accept limitations and changes
One approach I picked up from my yoga teachers is to verbalise our limitations when teaching: “I don’t have the joint range to do that, but if you do, go for it!” An example of modelling acceptance within the family could involve speaking openly and non-judgementally about bodies being ever-changing. In addition, there are times when changes are needed to improve a child’s quality of life or health – we can accept that and seek the right help and support for the child.
We do this through promoting body awareness and teaching the children how the body works. For example, in our body safety workshops, we talk about buttocks. Many children get squeamish and a cacophony of “Yuck! Smelly! Ewww!” ensues. We acknowledge their feelings, then initiate a conversation about what buttocks are for. Usually, it ends with gratitude for having buttocks, as it would be rather painful to be sitting down without them!
Visit @rolypolyfamilysg and @fayeminlim on Instagram.