As females growing up in Western Society today, there is no doubt that our daughters will be exposed to a consistent bombardment of subliminal messages that their worth is equated to their body. Men are also being increasingly targeted and the amount of men dealing with body image issues is also increasing significantly1
Whether the influence is through television, advertisements, playing with dolls that are unrealistically proportioned, messages (intentional or not) from ourselves as parents, billboards, magazines, the internet, peer groups, or movies; there is no escaping the thousands of messages we are presented with daily (unless you live in a bubble).
Although we don’t have total control over what our daughters will be exposed to, we definitely can do our part to contribute to a different dominant discourse. We can shield them from and teach them to be resistant to harmful messages that can lead to a slew of other issues down the road in adolescence and adulthood. Body image issues and other related issues can surface as a result of growing up immersed in these messages and can include: eating disorders, body image dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, addictions, and even suicidal ideation2, 3, 4
As I think back to my own experience as an adolescent and how body image became such an important piece of not only my own identity but for my entire peer group, it makes me sad to think so much of our adolescence was spent with that focus. The reality is that “worth” has nothing to do with what we look like, although the message is so strong in our society, it is hard to believe otherwise (especially when we are surrounded by people who’s main focus is appearance).
I am determined to do things differently with my daughters so they can become empowered women who love their bodies no matter what shape or size they are. My hope and goal is that they become women who appreciate real beauty and value feeling good in their own skin because they love who they are, not just what they see in the mirror. Here are some ways that I have already started to implement creating resilience in them and ways I plan to continue to do so in the future.
Don’t get me wrong, feeling good in your skin is important. However, instead of me stressing about what my girls look like, whether they match or not, whether their hair is perfectly brushed etc., I let them pick out what they want to wear. Sometimes they come out with striped fluorescent pants, and a plaid red shirt and want to wear interesting necklaces they created and who knows what kind of shoes. Other days it might be a dance skirt over a dress. Other days it looks like a typical outfit I might wear: Some jeans and a button up shirt. All are good with me! By letting them pick out what makes them happy they are learning to follow their own creativity and interests verses dressing how they think “others” might approve. Of course, there may come a time when I may need to teach them that wearing a tutu over a dress with some bright pants might not get them a job interview… 🙂
I’ve heard parents commenting on their own bodies right in front of their daughters. Comments such as “I feel so fat” or “I can’t eat that, I’ll gain 5 pounds”, are more detrimental than we might think! Although we might not be directly saying this to our little ones they are inadvertently picking up the message that there is something “wrong” with the way we currently are and that “fat is bad”. They in turn start to absorb these beliefs for themselves. Even though as adults we may be conditioned to society’s messages about “fat being bad” it is best to not only actively work on these beliefs ourselves and combat them, but to keep them to ourselves. When you grocery shop or cook, speak positively about food and why certain foods are good to eat for a healthy, nourished body.
Instead, find movies and TV show that are educational, inspire creativity, and foster emotional intelligence. Monitor what they do watch and also pay attention to the music you are listening to. Choose music and media that is positive and uplifting instead of appearance focused.
If you hear your daughter comment on her body, or other peoples bodies (for example, if you hear your daughter saying that someone else is “small” or “large”) sit down with her, look her in the eyes and tell her that everyone comes in different shapes and sizes and that is okay. That is what makes the world so rich and unique. If we all looked the same, things would be pretty boring. Give compliments to people in front of your daughters that do not involve appearance. Talk to your daughters about friends and family members and why they are special and unique people without mentioning their appearance. Show them other things that are beautiful but different like a bouquet of different flowers, talk about how each different color, shape, size, texture and pattern is unique just like people.
Have the conversation at the right time about fashion magazines, media and the importance of feeling good vs. meeting an “ideal” body size that our society may hold. Tell her that she will be exposed to all of this but that women in fashion magazines are highly airbrushed, that she will often hear that being “thin” is better, but it just isn’t true. What is better is eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full and letting your body develop the shape that nature intended for it.
By implementing these 5 approaches to body image early on you will increase your chances of building resiliency in your little girl and for her to become a beautiful and empowered woman from the inside out. Be sure to tell her that her talents, personality and how she treats people will bring her fulfillment. Feeling great about the way you look is wonderful; we just don’t want to put all (or a majority of) our focus there because there is so much more to a person than their looks.
Beauty goes far deeper than what we see with our eyes. Tell your daughter that she will likely have friends who will talk about dieting and body image and that each time she hears it she has an opportunity to tell them they are beautiful just the way they are (because they really and truly are).
Do you have positive body image tips? If so, please share them in the comments.