Rethinking the ‘Body Talk’
In sexual assault prevention work, we often talk about how important it is to get consent when it comes to physical contact with others’ bodies. We want children to know that their bodies are theirs, and that others’ bodies and boundaries deserve respect.
Small, early practices like asking “Can we move over there?” before moving a child’s body can help children develop ideas about body autonomy and help them understand that when it comes to their body, they have a say. In fact, building autonomy can help keep children protected from causing or experiencing sexual violence.
But what about consent when it comes to talking about bodies?
Think back to times visiting with loved ones during the holidays and you might know what we mean. Do you remember someone commenting on your appearance growing up? Do you remember how it made you feel?
“Have you lost weight?” or “You’re starting to look more like a woman instead of a little girl.”
Even the well-intentioned: “You’re so tall this year!” or “Oh I see you hair is a new color!” can stick out in our memories.
Remarks like these pop up all the time with people we love, and commenting on changes we observe is very human. In our society, commenting on someone’s appearance can be how we show we care and notice them.
But it’s also true that fielding others’ comments, even if they’re generally positive or complimentary, can sometimes be uncomfortable. Sometimes unsolicited comments about our bodies can make us feel more like objects than full people who are loved for our personalities and individuality.
Rethinking the body talk
To support sexual violence prevention, let’s consider taking a moment to pause and think before making a comment about someone’s body.
Of course, you know the relationship with the person you’re talking to best. Perhaps the kid in your life loves being tall and likes when people notice. But think about it: if we’re modeling for children that it’s normal to comment on someone’s body, what messages are they learning about how to treat other people? And what do those lessons look like once children hit puberty and are used to talking about other people’s bodies? It’s not a coincidence that sexual harassment (like talking about someone’s body in a sexual way without consent) escalates in middle school.
Let’s show kids we’re more than just our bodies. In a world of millions of other things to talk about, we can start a practice of skipping the body talk and picking something else to talk about that shows kids we notice and care about them. Plus – then we don’t have to be remembered as “that awkward family member.”
Other things to talk about besides bodies
Reading this, you might realize that you’ve been someone who has commented on people’s appearance in the past. As we said, it’s pretty normal in our society. But there are so many other things to talk to children and people about besides their bodies!
Here are a few ways to show someone you notice and care about them that don’t have anything to do with their body:
- “Last time we saw you, you were an elementary schooler. What’s it like in middle school now?”
- “Your mom said you’ve been building some neat stuff with Legos! Tell me about what you’ve been building.”
- “It’s so great to see you! How was your ride? What music did you listen to in the car coming here?”
- “I haven’t seen you since New Year’s last year! What’s been going on in your life since then?”
Responding to unsolicited body comments
Let’s be honest: not everyone’s had the chance to read this blog yet, and there might be some people in our lives who don’t know it can be harmful to comment on bodies. If we “call in” our loved ones instead of calling them out, we can help them be part of rethinking the body talk too.
Here are a few ways we can “call in” loved ones who might be used to making comments about appearance:
- “Oh, in our family we’re learning about how our bodies are our own, and that includes how we talk about them and what we share about our bodies. Elijah, do you want to tell Nana about your room redecoration project instead?”
- “I love coming to see you, but it feels kinda weird when you talk about my body. Can we talk about something else?”
- “We’re being mindful about how we talk about other’s bodies in our family. We’re trying to show Malika that she has a say with what happens to and around her body.”
- You can also call in a loved one when a child’s out of the room: “You’re right, Cassie is growing up! It might make her feel uncomfortable if we talk about her body in that way without her permission.”
Sexual assault prevention can start at home and with the people we love and trust. If we can be mindful about the way we speak about others’ bodies, we can help kids understand that everyone’s body deserves respect and dignity.
About the author
Danielle Buynak Horner is the Director of Community Outreach with the Erin Levitas Foundation.
This blog post “Rethinking the ‘Body Talk” came to me after spending time with a friend’s daughter recently. In a moment of pride for watching this little girl grow up, I realized I had an inclination to make an unsolicited body comment. I started wondering why we did this, and if body commentary added fuel to the sexual violence epidemic.
- A shout-out to children’s therapist Malia Segal, for her consultation on this blog post 💞
- Body Image & Mental Health
- The CDC’s Sexual Violence Prevention Technical Package
- Body Autonomy & Sexual Violence
- Risk & Protective Factors for Sexual Violence Infographic
- Objectification and Sexual Violence
- Violence Against Women Objectification Theory