Last month, my best friend came to me with concerns about EVERYONE calling her two year-old daughter “pretty.” Her concern was that “I feel like the world only notices her looks and is trying to place value on her outward appearance rather than her real strengths.”
I can imagine people telling my friend and her daughter that they should just relax because they got the long end of the stick. However, I have spent most of my professional life working with children and teens with eating disorders and Body Dysmorphic Disorders. I have stood outside bathrooms listening to skinny 14 year-old girls forcing themselves to vomit because they didn't think they were skinny enough. I have seen lovely intelligent girls cut their wrists because they gained ten pounds. I hurt for these girls. I hurt for their parents. I hurt for the youth of this body obsessed generation who, according to a study by A. Chris Downs, will receive roughly 5,260 ads related to attractiveness per year (or at least 14 per day).
How can this be combatted? Can parents like my friend raise a daughter with healthy body image without moving to Amish country? Here are 5 keys I've picked up through my formal education, my professional experience as a social worker, my own childhood, and most importantly, my experience as a mother of a lovely daughter.
1. It starts with you. Peggy O'Mara once said, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Nothing is more true. Your daughter looks to you for guidance on making sense of the world, making sense of herself and her purpose in life. If you cut her down, she will forever fight that voice in her head. Your voice. Raise your children up. Tell them they are beautiful but more importantly, tell them they are intelligent, kind, and worthy. Last week I took my three year-old daughter to the doctor for a routine check-up. The first thing they did was put her on the scale. I asked her, “How much do you weigh?” to which she responded, “Just right.” The nurse was shocked. I smiled and said, “That's right,” and I had never been more proud.
2. Be gentle with yourself. Kids learn in three ways; example, example, example. Your daughters are looking to you on how they should behave and feel. They say that the biggest indicator of how far a child will go educationally is how far their mother went. If you get your PhD, chances are your daughter will too. The same can be said about body image, if you feel fine about your body, chances are your daughter will too. If you do struggle with body issues, counseling can help you feel better about your body. The healthier you become the healthier your daughter will be.
3. Be gentle with others. Speak kindly. In The Bible, Matthew 12, it reads, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Whether you believe in the bible or not, this is good advice. Be a parent who doesn't speak poorly of those without “ideal” bodies. Study the immensity of the universe, study Christ's teachings, study the butterfly effect, or read Man's Search for Meaning. There is so much good to learn, who has time to spend criticizing the shape of someone else's body? The size of a person's stomach does not give their life meaning. The number on the scale does not define you or anyone else. The same day my daughter shocked the nurse we played at our local children's museum where we overheard two moms talking in the tot section about their next diet, the ugly parts of their bodies and form-fitting underwear. I usually don't talk to strangers, but I did that day. “Excuse me” I said shyly, “I don't mean to interrupt, but you two are so perfectly beautiful. Why do you worry about things like that?” They were almost speechless. I don't think they knew they were beautiful.
4. Be ready to talk. When questions do come, and they will, be ready to talk. We live in Oklahoma which is not the nation's healthiest state. When my daughter comes to me about body size differences we don't talk about attractiveness or body shapes. We talk about having a healthy heart. We talk about being physically strong so that we can do the things that our family values (basketball, hiking, horseback riding). We also talk about how other people value different things and how it is incredibly hurtful to talk bad about another person's body. People are sensitive about their bodies, the media makes sure of that. Raise your daughters to be a force for good in the world, to see the strengths in others rather than just a pant size.
5. Be a stinker about media consumption for as long as you can. Studies show that by first grade our personality/identity is formed and doesn't seem to change much throughout our lives. I know that the shows children watch, the games they play, and the songs that fill the room DO shape your daughter's life. Be watchful. Guard your children. Teach your children. Be an example of what and how much media to consume.
In the end, we cannot control everything our daughters think, feel, and do. They will make mistakes, and goodness knows, so will we! But at the end of the day, we have the privilege and responsibility to heavily influence the first few years of our daughters' brain development, which are apparently the most important. Hopefully, these steps help vaccinate your daughter against unhealthy body image.