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String theory: Talking to kids about Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues

Sports Illustrated has released its annual swimsuit issue – including its first a plus-size model – offering parents a chance to check in with their kids about body image and offer a reality check. 

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    Fashion students grip plus size mannequins during a photocall for their unveiling at Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland January 16, 2012.
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The spotlight on strong, empowered, objectification-free girl social dynamics that shone during the Super Bowl, thanks to the “Like A Girl” ad, was quickly shut off by the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue.

Now parents might want to open a dialogue about how families, especially those with girls or young women, process all of these ads.

The “Like A Girl” ad asked young people to “throw like a girl” or “run like a girl” with the initial result being an insulting parody implying that girls are flighty, inept creatures.

Then the ad turns it all around by showing a group of girls doing more empowering demonstrations of the same moves.

The ad was quickly lauded as a breakthrough for supporters of girl power, feminism and those who fight the objectification of women.

This week, the fact that a plus-size model in a bikini is featured in the Sports Illustrated (SI) swimsuit issue made headlines, followed by the extra risqué cover revealed by Jimmy Fallon on Wednesday.

Ashley Graham, 27, is the first size 14-16 model to appear in the annual issue, albeit in a paid advertisement for the plus-size bathing suit company swimsuitsforall.

“We get one positive ad during the Super Bowl,” says Glenda Mendelsohn, family therapist with the Princeton Family Institute in New Jersey during a phone interview. “When push comes to shove, a week later Sports Illustrated puts out this very provocative, disrespectful in some ways, image of women. In the same issue we have the plus-size bikini ad.”

Part of Dr. Mendelsohn’s work is helping young women suffering from eating disorders and their families.

“First thing I noticed about the plus-size ad – and by the way I hate that term because it always sounds like it’s a bad thing to be – is that they picked a guy much smaller than the model to seemingly accentuate her size.”

Mendelsohn also notes that the man is not with the plus-size girl and the fact that he’s falling into the pool in apparent shock tells us that this bikini is not about the girl feeling good, but pleasing the man as a route to feeling good about herself.

The problem is the sexual objectification of women in the media can lead to the same problem in real life.

Therefore, seeing the new Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and even the plus-size ad leads girls to either objectify themselves and in so doing develop unhealthy eating habits to lose or gain weight.

“I know it sounds unbelievable, but some of what we’re seeing is a tendency towards obesity that actually comes from girls rejecting the skinny images,” Mendelsohn explains. “Girls saying, ‘I refuse to be what they want me to be’ and becoming obese because they feel they can’t ever achieve the image expected of them by society.”

That kind of thinking is likely to contribute to mental health challenges that disproportionately affect women, such as eating disorders and depression, which Mendelsohn characterizes as “an epidemic in America right now.”

Mendelsohn mentions that young women and teens obsessing over a perceived social mandate to shave and wax their bikini areas is an increasing concern she has noted.

“What really bothers me about that cover image is that she’s pulling down her pants and very obviously shaven. They [SI] just crossed the line from swimsuit to Playboy,” Mendelsohn says. “Why? Why did they have to do that?”

“For years the swimsuit edition has been about being sexy and this is their idea of sexy,” she adds. “There’s only so much you can do with a bathing suit. So now, it has to be about taking off the bathing suit.”

Mendelsohn believes families can combat the prevalence of this kind of image and thinking, starting with moms developing healthy self-images and attitudes to pass on to daughters.

“Healthy moms are vital, but moms and dads need to talk to each other and get on the same page about how to talk about this with the whole family,” Mendelsohn says. “That means the whole family – mom, dad, brothers all understanding that these kinds of ads are sending the message that it’s all about the satisfaction of a man.”

Here are some ways to build stronger self-images that can better withstand the images we see in the media and social media, according to Mendelsohn.

  • Talk about the reality level of what your child is seeing. Discuss how, in many instances, photos are manipulated to smooth skin, reduce or increase size, and generally create an image that may be so unattainable that even top fashion models require Photoshopping to make the cover grade.
  • Take time to show videos and stories on famous people going enhancement-free such as “No Makeup Monday” on the Today Show. Moms might want to watch the TED talk “The Lady Stripped Bare” by Tracey Spicer.
  • Override self-surveillance (e.g., not weighing ourselves every day, every moment is not a good idea. While it’s important to keep tabs on weight, weighting yourself more than once a day is more like fixation and obsession and extremely unhealthy.)
  • Choose clothing based on comfort and appreciating your body size, not to fit a fashion image generated by someone else.

Because it’s hard to ignore something this prevalent in society it helps to talk openly about it with your family, either one-on-one after the fact, or when the opportunities arise.

Mendelsohn says, “Girls are constantly trying to be something created by someone else to please someone else – men, the fashion industry. We need to help our children to like themselves for who and what and how they are.”

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