Growing up, I was often reminded that I could "lose some weight." From overt suggestions at the pediatrician’s office to the endless bombardment of images that highlighted the “ideal” female form in movies and magazines, the consensus was that I could drop a few pounds. I knew what it was like to lose confidence in your body, and how that loss would translate to losing confidence in yourself as a human being, so I was determined that I would find ways to raise a more body confident daughter once I became a mother. My mom had her own struggles with body image, having been forced to diet as a teen when she gained the “freshman 15," and I think that is one of the many reasons why her struggles ended up becoming my struggles. I don't want my child to end up feeling the way I constantly felt as a kid, less than worthy, for weighing more than average, especially because of something I said or did.
Currently, my daughter seems to be very comfortable with her body. Once, when she was around six, she grew frustrated with her hula hooping ability. “I need to be fatter, Mommy. So this hoop can fit me better.” I laughed, because it never dawned on me that someone would want to be thicker. I had spent decades trying to be thinner and trying to shrink myself and trying to be anything other than what someone could conceive as "big," so my daughter's adorable words were revolutionary to me. She was essentially saying that dissatisfaction with our bodies is not limited to weight, but can include anything what we want them to do for us, and what our bodies can do is far more important than how they look.
Since then, I’ve been more conscientious about what could possibly influence my daughter’s perception of her body. I want her to grow up trusting her body as an ally. I don’t want her to feel as I did; that her body betrays her because it doesn’t fit into a certain size or curve in certain places or doesn't fit into some predetermined, horribly unrealistic and often-times unhealthy social standard.So, in addition to avoiding a focus on her appearance, here are some things I’m doing to, hopefully, raise a more body confident daughter:
Find Other Attributes Of Hers To Praise Besides Or Instead Of Her Appearance
This is a no-brainer because of course there are so many qualities about our daughters that make us proud. Even when my daughter is looking particularly adorable on school day, I try to find a way to compliment her that shows I value her skills, and not her natural visage (which, quite frankly, her father and I were responsible for making). “I like how you did your hair yourself,” I can say, or, “That is a terrific choice you made, picking out that particular dress.” Phrases like these demonstrate my pride in her thought process, and not just her surface beauty.
Praise Her Looks, But Praise Her Brother’s Too
This works for me because I have a daughter and a son, so I realize that this isn't an option for one-and-done parents or parents without sons. However, the point is, parents can just as easily find beauty in their sons as well as in their daughters. The more we neutralize the fact that we find someone’s hairstyle, shoes, or handwriting to our pleasing, the more we break down the stigma of girls having to please others with their looks while boys get to actually do things. Anyone can look good, and I bet guys like hearing it too.
Stop Asking Her To Smile
Well, this may not apply to family photos, but the pressure on girls, and women, to project happiness is burdensome and sexist. While on vacation recently, we took our kids on a boat tour of Niagara Falls. An attendant handing out the rain ponchos would not give one to my daughter or her female cousin (both 8 years old) until they smiled at him. The attendant did not pose this requirement for my son or any of the male family members with us. The girls obliged, at the moment, but it taught me that I have to teach them that they are never obligated to smile for someone just because they want to see it. The best lesson, I think, is to teach my daughter that her looks are for her first. She doesn't need to feign happiness or contentment for someone else's pleasure.
Go Swimming WIth Her
I may love swimming, but I don’t often love seeing myself in a bathing suit. However, I've forced myself to swallow that insecurity, move past it, and show my girl that it doesn’t matter how I look; my appearance or what someone else may or may not think of it, won’t get in the way of me having a good time. Plus, seeing her light up when I agree to get in water with her is worth anything.
Don’t Knock Your Athletic Skills, Even If You Don’t Have Any
I have no innate abilities when it comes to sports. I feel the way my then 5-year-old daughter did when she declared, “I don’t like games with balls in them.” However, I've made it a point to play anyway. Both my kids have baseball mitts and when we head to the playground with the soccer ball and none of their friends have arrived yet, I kick it around with them. I’m terrible, but I know that it’s better for them to see me active than not. Three years later, my daughter apparently loves basketball (though I have yet to see her make a basket, further proving my point).
Avoid Voicing Any Disappointment With Your Own Looks
It’s hard for me to love what I see in the mirror, as I’ve been working through body image issues for decades. However, for the sake of my children and both of them growing up with healthy relationships with their bodies, I’m suppressing any urge to knock my looks. Though my kids are still young, I have yet to hear them murmur anything negative about their appearance, or mine. Oh, except for them endlessly commenting on how tired I look. Ya think?
Use Logic, Not Shame, When Evaluating Her Outfit Choices
I nearly blew a gasket when my kids’ public school sent home a notice about appropriate clothing as the weather got warmer. No flip-flops I understand, from a safety standpoint if nothing else. But no tank tops? No spaghetti strapped sundresses? Items like these target girls — little girls — and policed their clothing options because, um, why exactly? Is it uncomfortable for teaching staff to see an 8-year-old’s shoulders? Sorry, but when my kids are in school buses and classrooms that are non air-conditioned on 80-degree days, I’m going to dress them to stay as cool and comfortable as possible, because that is beneficial to their learning.
My daughter’s classmate, who is tall, was apparently panicking because she didn’t have shorts that fall past her fingertips when her arms were down (the required skirt or short length). What a thing to have to worry about when you’re so young.
Try Not To Blame Her Size For Anything
I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve told my daughter she is probably having trouble with a piano piece because her fingers aren’t long enough yet, or that she can’t go on a roller coaster because of her height. No, there is nothing I can do about the height requirement on "The Viper," but I could have chosen my words more carefully. By focusing on the safety requirements, and not that she is at fault for falling short of the rules, I shift emphasis away from her appearance.
Let Her Do Your Hair
Or let her pick out your clothes or let her style me or simply let her make her own choices when it comes to her appearance. It will probably (definitely) not come out the way I always want it, but it shows my daughter that I trust her choices. Yes, by letting her pick out her own clothes, I give her the autonomy to express herself, and by allowing her to dress my body, I facilitate the opportunity to talk about what makes me feel or look good. I know it sounds counterintuitive — putting your appearance in the hands of someone may seem like you’re relinquishing your own power over your looks — but when I agree to hand over the brush to my daughter, she takes great care to consider my opinions, gently recommending a style I don’t usually wear (like, anything other than the two-second ponytail that’s been my go-to style since always).