7 Body Image Questions I Have About Raising A Daughter
"So how did you feel when you found out you were having a girl?" It was a question a colleague asked me a few weeks after I'd been given the news, but I still didn't know how to answer it. "I felt like I could better relate to a girl," I told her. "But I'm also so worried about her already." Thinking of her own 2-year-old daughter, she quickly replied, "Me too. It's so much harder. It's just so much harder to be a girl."
Life has its tragic, mind-boggling moments for everyone, I'm sure: The kind of moments that make you doubt yourself. The kind that make you question your self-worth. But I believe deeply in layers of privilege. Girls have it rougher than boys, at large, because girls are simply treated differently. We are regularly accused of being weak and incapable; unsuitable for positions of power while simultaneously expected to embody traditional femininity in dress, presentation, and demeanor. We are either "too much" or "not enough." And so many of us battle debilitating body image insecurities — internalizing the shaming rhetoric that permeates every aspect of contemporary living — as a result.
As a soon-to-be mom, I worry about my daughter's body image, regardless of how she herself will end up looking. Maybe she'll take after my partner: thin, lanky, pale. I imaging that'll make things easier. It'll free her of socioculturally ingrained fat shaming, even if it doesn't remove the sociocultural sexism that makes most women and feminine people struggle to love themselves. But maybe she'll take after me. Maybe she'll be chunky; fat. Maybe her skin will be darker, like so many of my Colombian relatives. I just don't know. All I know is that she's going to be assigned female at birth. And as a result, things won't be easy. As I wait for her arrival in just under two months, these are the body image-related questions I'm already worried about.
How Can I Instill Tolerance Of All Bodies, When Much Of The World Won't Do The Same?
It's important to me that my daughter know, from day one, that there is no body worthy of intolerance or mockery in this world. I want to teach her that any messaging that dictates otherwise is prejudicial, harmful, and wrong. I plan on doing small things — like displaying fat positive and body-diverse artwork all around our home. But I cannot help but feel that it might not be enough.
Regardless of her weight, will she presume me to be unhealthy, undisciplined, unattractive, or in need of repair? Will she feel ashamed of bringing home her friends, the thought of them seeing her fat mom a source of embarrassment?
Even if our house is covered in celebratory imagery of all body types, the rest of the world simply isn't. She still won't be able to pick up a magazine and have the undeniable guarantee that a body within it will look like hers. She won't necessarily be able to turn on her favorite television network and see fat actors in empowering roles, or differently-abled ones as protagonists. She won't be able to read through a list of the top supermodels today and be presented with much size diversity beyond the 0 to 6 range. If she's plus-size one day, she likely won't be able to walk into any store of her choosing and come out satisfied with a new purchase.
I can only hope that the messaging my partner and I provide within the household helps combat all the rest. But I know that society and media and school and peers can all influence our self-image as well as our perceptions of other bodies. And this terrifies the hell out of me.
If She's Taught That "Fat Is Bad," How Will She Feel About Me?
I remember the first time an actual teacher told me that fat was always bad, always unhealthy, always a problem. It was the third grade, when most kids are about 8 or 9 years old. My thoughts lingered on my dad, whose belly had always been soft and big. I looked down at my own: protruding and wobbly. I wondered what this meant about our mortality, our place in the world. In most spheres of education that I've ever encountered, fatness exists beneath an umbrella. It's an umbrella housing all the traits and identities that we're told are inherently inferior. Although fat-positive studies exist at the university level nowadays (on limited campuses the world over), I highly doubt my kid will encounter fat-positive rhetoric at school until she's at least 18. And I can't help but wonder how this will shape her opinion of me, of any other fats in her life, or of herself should she have any visible pudge.
Regardless of her weight, will she presume me to be unhealthy, undisciplined, unattractive, or in need of repair? Will she feel ashamed of bringing home her friends, the thought of them seeing her fat mom a source of embarrassment? It might sound dramatized — surely, if one works hard to cultivate an open, caring relationship with a child, things will be better than all that, right? And yet, she'll be hearing from a lot of folks that my body type is inherently wrong.
How Can I Combat The Homogenous Imagery Of Beauty She'll Be Presented With In Most Mainstream Media?
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For the entirety of my childhood and teen years, I was convinced that feminine beauty maintained a very specific list of traits consisting of thinness, whiteness, and able-bodied-ness. Bonus points if you also had light hair, bright eyes, and symmetrical features. I'd arrived at this conclusion because women who ticked all the boxes were the ones I most saw in the images around me. And whenever anyone commented on the "problems" with my own body, it was with such characteristics they felt I should be aspiring to.
I never want my daughter to feel like her body is shameful. I never want her to think that showing it love — in whatever incarnation that might manifest — should ever warrant the infliction of pain of prejudice.
That beauty could be wholly subjective was beyond my scope of understanding at the time. I'd be well into my 20s before learning that what is beautiful to one person might not be to another. And that as a result, there is tangible beauty to be found in all bodies, in all shapes, in all skin colors, in all levels of thinness and fatness. I want my daughter to be cognizant of the subjectivity of beauty, not only so that her own body image is healthier, but so that she's open to interpreting the myriad forms of beauty around her day in and day out. But while I'm waiting for mainstream representations of the B-word to evolve and diversify in order to back up this premise, I fear that my opinions and those of my partner won't be enough to convince her.
How Can I Stop My Daughter From Thinking Parts Of Her Own Body Are Shameful?
Much of the world arguably still operates under fear of the female body. I grew up in a particularly conservative home, where some of the most traditional facets of Catholicism were instilled in children. As a result, I felt genuinely afraid of my body throughout puberty and thereafter: My new boobs, my curved hips, and my menstruating vagina feeling particularly dangerous. They were things I was told could "tempt" the men around me. They were parts of the body I was urged to hide. If I was too out-there with my womanhood, I could be risking physical violence and harassment. Should anything so horrible happen, it'd be on me, I realized: the one who could've avoided the revealing top or short skirt.
I never want my daughter to feel like her body is shameful. I never want her to think that showing it love — in whatever incarnation that might manifest — should ever warrant the infliction of pain of prejudice. Although I hope to have honest conversations with her about the capacity some people have to hurt others, I just don't want her to feel that she's at fault for this... simply for being a girl.
How Will I Teach Her Stretch Marks & Cellulite Are Not Flaws?
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According to Scientific American, approximately 90 percent of women have or will get cellulite. I'd wager that the same is true of stretch marks. About eight in 10 pre-teens will also get acne, as reported by Kids Health, not to mention all the adults who get it, too. All of this is to say that the majority of girls will likely experience the very things we are so conditioned to believe are wrong. Through creams, ointments, and all sorts of other lotions and procedures, women are continuously told that their bodies are broken for accumulating marks and tears. And yet, it seems that most of us will accumulate them. So are most of us broken?
This is what much of society and mainstream depictions of beauty would have my kid believe. And I want so badly to teach her the exact opposite. Stretch marks and cellulite are not burdens or flaws: They are simply markers of a life in progress, of a person who is growing and changing in more ways than one. So, in an effort to remind her of that, I'll try to show her my own. I'll try not to hide the many stretch marks I developed while growing her. I'll keep wearing shorts and skirts in the summer. I'll normalize the look of these things to the best of my abilities. And I'll present her with images of other people who do the same.
How Do I Help Her Think Of Makeup As An Option, Not A Requirement?
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I love makeup, personally. I believe beauty can hold many transformative properties when used out of passion and self-love and not as a tool for conforming to someone else's idea of "pretty." But I'm also at a point in my life where I don't require it in order to feel OK. And the feeling has been quite freeing.
If my daughter has interest in makeup, I want to explore it with her. I can't wait to do so, actually. But I wonder how I can ensure that the interest is coming from curiosity and a desire to explore an art form — a desire to decorate and understand all the versions of her face that she can create — and not one to hide or reject her face as is.
How Can I Help Her Love The Parts Of Her Body That Don't Align With Traditional Beauty Ideals?
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The truth is, I have no idea what my kid is going to look like. Maybe she'll have my small nose; maybe she'll have my dad's large one. Maybe she'll have the crooked smile of my sister; maybe she'll have the large, uneven ears common in my mom's side of the family. Maybe her skin will be fair, maybe it won't be. My family has it all, after all. Maybe she won't want to shave her armpits or groom her eyebrows. Maybe she'll just prefer a furry look.
But because she'll grow up largely in the Western world, I fear for what Eurocentric ideals of beauty will teach her. I worry about the preoccupation with "dainty" female features, groomed or removed body hair, and perfect symmetry. With the exception of decorating my house with Frida Kahlo's self portraits or those of women who rock the hell out of their natural asymmetry, I don't know what I can do to combat this narrative.
And I suppose that's what my biggest fear is; my darkest question: Is it even possible to combat the dominant cultural narratives? My partner and I are but two people our daughter will know and learn from. We can't control the messages she ingests. We can't control the lessons others try to bestow upon her. We can't alter the conclusions she'll arrive to after spending a few hours in front of a TV. We can try to, sure, but will it ever be enough?
I truly don't know. And so I guess my biggest dream — my deepest fantasy — is that the dominant cultural narratives begin to shift. That more and more people will vocalize all that is wrong with them, until someday they cease to be relevant at all.