Is banning ‘body talk’ the way to go?

Yesterday, the NY Times ran a story about how some summer camps are banning body talk. Fat talk, skinny talk, no insults, no compliments. No. Body. Talk. I’m not going to talk about the article itself, you can read it. I’d like to talk about some of the comments.

Mostly, they fell into two camps. The first were mostly decrying what they considered to be no more than censorship of free speech’. Some examples:

  • It just seems forced and unnatural to have speech rules for the campers.
  • Banning the thoughts and/or banning the speech will never work and sends a really wrong message in itself.
  • No matter how good the cause I’m highly uncomfortable with this level of speech control. It’s just not an environment I’d be comfortable or would be comfortable placing my kids.

First of all, whatever situation or environment you are in, there are ‘rules’. We’re not talking about legislation. Nobody is suggesting putting kids in solitary for saying ‘I like your dress’. At least I hope not. But every environment sets guidelines as to what is considered appropriate. You may cuss around your friends, but you wouldn’t do it in front of your boss, or your mother. OK, maybe you would. Some workplaces are very easy going about that kind of thing, and your mother may swear like a sailor for all I know. But you get my drift. The concept of free speech simply says that you cannot be imprisoned for your opinions. It doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want, to whoever you want, whenever you want, without consequences. Part of the role of people who help to raise kids, both parents and other responsible adults to whom parents entrust their children, is to help teach them what is, and is not, appropriate.

I think part of the problem here, other than the knee-jerk reaction to the ‘liberal agenda’, is that people don’t really consider body talk to be problematic, so they see any attempt to limit it as a restriction too far. I would class these in that category:

  • So we’re going to replace the “fat talk” with the “mood talk” and the “please everyone” talk? Have some mottos, demonstrate the values, but other than that aside from real problems, relax.
  • This is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Put rules in place to ban bullying but all the adults at overnight camp surely have better things to do than attempt to stop a gaggle of kids from saying things like “cute skirt” or “you look spiffy!
  • I would love to see less “body talk” all around, but I don’t think outright bans are the way to do it. Model the more positive talk and have the mottos, but don’t control what people can and can’t say (unless, of course, there is bullying).

Let’s get this straight. Body talk IS bullying. It is assault. It robs our kids of their innocence. Their self-esteem. In some cases, it robs them of their futures. The idea that words can’t hurt us is a fallacy.  The co-opting of ever-younger children into their own entrapment, into a lifetime of wasted tears, wasted time, wasted opportunities – that is a ‘real problem’.

But ok, you might say, obviously ‘negative body talk’ is bad, but what’s wrong with complimenting people? Indeed, Ellen from Missouri commented:

  • Someone at my office recently told me that they thought that I was especially nice because I frequently compliment others on a tie, piece of jewellery, shoes, etc. I never realized that this might harm the person’s psyche.

Complimenting people, per se, is not the problem. I love complimenting people. Total strangers. Especially those who may not be used to getting compliments. But now, if I see a haircut, a ring, a dress I like, the way they did their eye shadow, their purple sparkling nail polish, whatever, I will go up to that person, tell them so, smile, and walk away. The look of shock and delight on their face is wonderful. BUT. It’s not that simple.

If we compliment little boys on their bike riding skills, their new scouts badge, their exam grades, and we compliment our little girls for looking pretty, then we have a problem. If we compliment people for a change in their appearance, what are we saying? That they didn’t look good before? The classic of course is, ‘You look great, have you lost weight?’ Now what does that say? What about if they haven’t lost weight, but now they know you think they’re fat? While I personally no longer believe that there is anything at all wrong with being fat, that question is loaded with the opposite insinuation. What if they have lost weight – how does it feel when they put it all back on again? What are you supposed to say then? What are they supposed to think? And then there is the story I read somewhere about the woman who told a colleague complimenting her on her weight loss that she had cancer. And she was told, ‘Oh, well, it looks good on you. I wish I could get something that would make me lose weight.’

This is the world we live in. This is the world that comes into being when we make everything about appearance. Especially in women and girls. Don’t think for a second they aren’t getting the message. Five year old’s with eating disorders. A world where 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat, and over half of 9 and 10 year olds feel better about themselves if they’re on a diet. And half of them are, with 80% having dieted by the time they’re 9. A world where a study of over 80,000 9-th and 12-th graders foudn that well over half of the girls and around a third of the boys were using unhealthy weight-control behaviours such as diet pills, fasting, smoking, or using laxative.

And speaking of that world, the final group of commenters had something to say about that also.

  • Bottom line is that human beings are visual creatures and human beings are not always nice and often cruel. We have to learn to deal with this reality.
  • The world is tough, this sheltering of children from every imaginable slight is beyond believe. And in the long run, harmfull. We are not all equal, or great or the best, or the winner. Get used to it.

I’ve written before about my own transformative experience in a size-neutral environment, so I won’t go into that again here. I don’t think the intention behind these body talk ‘rules’ is to change society in the space of a summer. I think the point is that it gives a glimpse of what things could be like. That what passes for ‘normal’ doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m just going to leave you with what I wrote in the comments on the NY Times piece.

It is so rare to find an environment where this kind of talk is totally absent, that being in one for even a short while can be a revelation. The difference in how you feel about yourself is so striking that it makes you realise how those other environments were affecting your wellbeing.

While these kids will have to go back to an environment where such talk is endemic, they will be much better prepared to deal with it. To recognise it when they see it. And to not buy into it.

Bravo Camp Eden and others like you.

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2 Responses

  1. I agree a billion percent. For one, as a girl child I was only complemented or insulted on my looks. I was never told I was good at a sport, an academic subject, an instrument. Nor was I critiqued for my lack of acumen in say, basketball. My female friends had the same experience, with the only exception being traditionally feminine pastimes such as mentoring younger students. The boys I knew had the opposite situation: their looks were never mentioned, but their skills or lack thereof in anything from baseball to guitar to computer knowledge always was. This set me up for the miserable world I see today, from the media to the workplace to the arts: women are their looks, in the eyes of society, and those looks better include thinness, youthfulness, makeup, heels, shaved everything, and fashionable garb. Those who don’t comply are societally ostracized by both men and women, while women’s talents are ignored. Meanwhile a man need only a certain height (still unfair, as I am a really short trans man and have been considered repellent because of my height both before transition and after, have “midget” yelled at me from cars, etc) to be considered “handsome”. As for weight, for a man to be hated for being fat, he probably has to be three times heavier than a woman who is considered fat. In this ridiculous society, someone called a “fat ugly bitch” would, if they transitioned to becoming a man, would merely be considered a “big guy” and left unbullied. This policy is also awesome because it will encourage girls to see each other and themselves as equals, not competition in a beauty contest where all important boys judge their worth. This will then help them develop interests and talents, skills and camaraderie the way boys are always encouraged to do. Unfortunately, it will only be a drop in an ocean of misogyny, but it could plant the seeds for resistance against butt cellulite cream nation. Finally, this policy will eliminate “nonpliments” and passive aggressive remarks which create self consciousness and resentment. For instance, I seethed inwardly when a girl gushed about my “curvy girly big ass” or how my shortness was “cute and delicate” when I despise those aspects of this body (granted I am a trans guy, but as a 15 year old girl I still hated them even though I’d never heard of trans). If this policy saves even one adolescent girl from being as miserable I was my entire adolescence, it is worth it.

    • Angela

      I’m so sorry you’ve had to put up with all that crap. I simply don’t understand why we find it so difficult to just be nice to each other.

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