When I was a little girl, I remember looking at my reflection in the mirror and repeating the classic line from Snow White: "Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" I believed there really was only one answer to that question: someone thin, blonde, and pretty. That person wasn't me. When I looked in the mirror I didn't like what I saw, and I became obsessed with my imperfections. Now that I'm a mom, I've noticed that my daughter is obsessed with mirrors, too. I'm worried. I'm so very, very worried.
I can't stop myself from wondering what she's thinking and what her constant appraisal of her appearance will do to her self-esteem and, perhaps more importantly, her understanding of concepts like beauty, body image, and identity. Will the lessons of body positivity and acceptance and self-worth fall on deaf ears? Because, honestly, I'm pretty sure constantly looking in the mirror isn't good for her. I believe and try to teach my kids that beauty comes from within and is totally in the eye of the beholder. That means you don't have to look like a Disney princess or be white, thin, blonde, or conventionally pretty to be beautiful. But, I also know that I'm only one part of a complex puzzle influencing the development of her body image, and the rest of the world sends her an entirely different set of messages.
When I see my daughter staring at her reflection, smoothing her clothes and her hair, adding lipstick and putting on necklaces, I still imagine her as a toddler, fascinated with her reflection. It's hard to wrap my mind and heart around the idea that she's now obsesses about her appearance, because she doesn't feel good enough. I want her to accept the reflection she sees and not care what other people think, but that's really hard to do in a culture that consistently tells her from day one how she is supposed to look and act, and that how she looks and acts will determine not only how people think and feel about her, but her sense of self-worth.
I am horrified by the idea that she already thinks there's something wrong with her appearance at 8 years old.
She's not even out of elementary school and she already wants to make sure she wears the right clothes to impress the other kids at school. And when she doesn't, or someone makes fun of her clothes, her hair, or the scar on her cheek, it's heartbreaking. I try to dry her tears and tell her she's going to be OK, but I remember experiencing those moments at her age. I remember how they changed me.
I personally have a love/hate relationship with mirrors. As a child I examined every line, freckle, and curve, wanting desperately to change what I saw. To make things worse, I've suffered from some form of disordered eating for as long as I can remember, so I can't ever trust that what I see in mirrors is a reflection of reality. While I love makeup, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that at 39-years-old, I just started feeling comfortable walking out the door with bare skin without feeling like everyone will judge me.
The world is a scary place for girls and women, and the deck is stacked against her.
I am horrified by the idea that she already thinks there's something wrong with her appearance at 8 years old. But the excrutiating reality is that she is, and she's not alone. According to a report published by Common Sense Media, more than 50 percent of girls wish they were thinner, rates of eating disorders among children are on the rise, and 25 percent of children have dieted by the time they turn 7. The same report highlights not only problems seen in our kids' perception of their bodies, but how kids develop that body image. Their understanding of how they look, and how they compare to others, starts at a really long age. And this understanding is shaped by everything from the media and their friends, to their parents, and the things we say and do. That ideal has largely been presented as young, thin, and conventionally beautiful. That is not OK.
I don't want that for my daughter. I don't want her to be told how she should look before she is even old enough to know who she is. I don't want her to learn that the way someone looks is the most important thing about a person. I also don't want her to focus on looking pretty for other people. So, I try not to tell her how pretty I think she is. At the same time it's freaking hard, because I honestly would have given just about anything to hear my mom say the words: "you're pretty."
So, yeah, I'm worried AF. And maybe I should be worried. The world is a scary place for girls and women, and the deck is stacked against her. Like most parents, I try my hardest to do and say the "right things" to make sure that when my daughter looks in the mirror 100 times a day, she is proud of the person she sees. That those things in her reflection that make her unique, don't make her less than perfect. I hope that it's enough, and I'm so scared that it's not.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.