Now that my daughter is in kindergarten, we've finally started down the path I've been dreading for years now: the inevitable comparisons she will now be experiencing with other kids. There really is no easy way to deal with kids and body image. No matter how much you build up your child when they're younger, or avoid using words like "beautiful" and "ugly" altogether, everything changes in school. Which is why, even though school can teach your daughter some fantastic things, school can also teach your daughter to hate her body.
Young children are blissfully unaware of what they look like in comparison with other kids, but that bliss will inevitably come to an end. I've seen my daughter go from being wonderfully unapologetic about who she is and how she looks, to suddenly being concerned with how others will view her. That change happened in one year. One. It breaks my heart, and I'm trying so hard to combat it with body-positive talk.
This morning, for example, was one of those instances. It's raining here, and my daughter was getting her rain pants and rain jacket on. She's four and a half years old, and while she's always been small for her age, she's recently been going through a growth spurt; fitting into clothes that are actually made with her specific age range in mind. I used to buy clothes that just fit her, because I knew that she would continue to fit into them for a long time (she wore a 9-12 month sized skirt up until she turned four!), but I've been buying a size up for the past few months, so that she can wear clothes for more than a single season.
Well, her rain gear is most definitely too big. In fact, she's kind of swimming in it, but she seemed excited when she first got it all so I let it be. Plenty of kids wear a size too big so they can grow into their clothes, but I guess the majority of those kids are boys. And guess what? After close to 20 minutes of my daughter essentially refusing to leave the house for a million reasons, I discovered that it was because she was afraid her friends would laugh at her.
My heart broke into a million pieces as I realized pieces of her natural body positivity were being chipped away. We sat down and had a talk about how what you look like should never matter to your friends; that what's on the inside is what ultimately counts the most. I told her that she is smart, and brave, and kind, and funny, and thoughtful, and loving, and also that she is beautiful, and nothing she wears is going to change that. I can only hope it sinks in, and I can only hope that her school won't teach her to hate her body. In the meantime, I'll look out for these 11 warning signs that my daughter is being taught the absolute wrong thing.
I honestly think that most "mean girls" tend to have big sisters who are being a bit mean to them, or (sadly) maybe even a mother. Children observe and they mimic, perpetuating whatever cycle they're used to experiencing at home. That's my totally uneducated guess, at least, and my reason for this unavoidable "bullying" phenomenon that is so difficult to wrap your head around.
When She Starts To Compare Her Body To Her Classmates'
It will likely start out as mere curiosity, but this type of comparison often descends into feeling like, somehow, one girl isn't as pretty or as skinny or as tall or as (insert any other ridiculous and unrealistic cultural standard of beauty perpetuated by a patriarchal society, used to pit women against one another) as the other, because of X or Y.
Hearing Other Girls Refer To Themselves As Fat
Honestly, fat isn't a bad word and so many wonderful and inspiring body-positive activists are working tirelessly to de-stigmatize "fat". However, most children (I would have to guess) aren't there yet, and still associate negative connotations to the word fat. When your daughter overhears someone calling themselves fat and sees a healthy-looking girl, she may come to the conclusion that she must be fat, too.
I know dress codes are meant to eliminate the distraction of "cool" versus "uncool" clothes, or even the distraction of having to choose clothes to wear every morning, but there's another side to this: the idea that girls' bodies are a distraction for boys. I mean, does a woman's shoulders really distract anyone from learning? They are just shoulders, people.
Hearing Other Girls Talk About Dieting
When dieting is talked about ad nauseam, it can start to sound like "the thing to do". Maybe your daughter simply wants to fit in and be part of the conversation, so she'll start dieting so she has something to contribute to the discussion, too. Maybe she will start looking at her own body and think, "Well, if she looks like that and she's dieting, I should probably diet too." It's a slippery slope, and the ride down usually begins with the desire to fit in (which, you know, most everyone has when they're in school).
You know, the boys who have watched a few too many music videos or consumed a few too many (insert anything media related here), or simply don't have feminist parents to teach them about unrealistic beauty expectations, tend to assume that girls should look a particular way in order to be considered "beautiful" or even "dateable". Ugh.
Being Made Fun Of For Being Athletic
Why are boys so often praised for being athletically-inclined, but girls are called "tomboys" or "masculine" or some other word that is meant to be hurtful? Why aren't they just praised for being strong? Or fast? Or capable of doing any number of things that boys are praised for doing? I'll give you two guesses, but you're only going to need one. (Hint: gender stereotypes.)
Hearing A Teacher Compliment Any Female Student On Her Looks
Can you see where this is going? If it's not your daughter who got the compliment, she's wondering why she's not pretty enough to attract that kind of attention from an authority figure. If she did get the compliment, then she begins to associate her self-worth with being praised for her looks by authority figures. It's a lose-lose situation.
The Stereotyping Games Kids Play
Why do the boys always end up rescuing the girls? I spent so much time trying to teach my daughter that she could rescue her own damn self, because she is strong, and now all of that has gone out the window after a few trips to the playground.
When A Dress Code Is Broken, They Are Shamed And Sent Home To Change
Just what every girl needs to develop: a complex about not meeting society's expectations regarding what they look like.
Fear-Based Nutrition Education
Listen, there is no question that an orange is better than orange juice; I am 100% behind that way of thinking. However, do we really need to aggressively drill that into our children's heads, to the point that they feel ashamed for wanting a glass of orange juice? Do we really need to scare our children with some (usually empty) threat like, "If you eat too much of that one thing, you'll get fat," as if being fat is a bad thing or something they should fear? It's all about moderation.