What girl hasn’t grown up noticing how she’s noticed? If she is frequently praised for her looks a girl will quickly realize that’s how she is valued. And if a girl grows up hearing her mother complain about her own body and her appearance, a daughter will also learn that that’s just what women do — be critical of themselves and never enjoy the strength and beauty of their bodies. How mothers model body acceptance and body awareness can have a profound impact on a daughter’s self-esteem and future understanding of her own adult body. Constantly hearing critical self-talk, especially around the subject of weight, bonding with other women through dieting and denial, along with automatic cringing in response to a glance in a mirror is a certain way for the cycle of body hatred to continue within a family.
About a year ago the article, “How to Talk to Little Girls” went viral on the Internet as the author mentions, “This week ABC News reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat.” Author Lisa Bloom suggests concrete ways to connect with young girls besides commenting on their looks. Interestingly, she also published parallel advice in an article entitled, “How to Talk to Little Boys” which steers (often well-meaning) adults away from stereotypical topics that don’t give boys room to express other interests.
There’s no doubt that most women in America have absorbed conventional definitions of beauty that are presented by the media – being model-thin, tall, with polished skin and long hair, and often a frank sexiness. The fact that this type of woman represents a fraction of how average American women look is often left out the equation yet doesn’t diminish the aspirational influence created on the pages of national magazines.
Media messages about how girls are taught how they ought to look are ubiquitous, and hard to filter, hence the importance of teaching media literacy early on, as one model recently did, emphasizing that what is seen in magazines is different from what is seen in real life. But what about the messages girls receive from one of the most important people in their lives — the one who can most influence her ideas about her appearance and convey, by example, what it means to love one’s body.
When a girl grows up hearing her mother commenting negatively on her appearance when she passes a mirror with “I look terrible!” or “I’m too fat,” or bonding with other female friends through dieting or negative body commentary girls learn that this is what she’s supposed to do as well. In a recent media cycle, this honest writer insisted that her “mom body” stay in her childrens’ pictures and received a huge outpouring of support about changing the dynamic of what’s okay to have represented. And other writers have recently spoken out, courageously, about demonstrating to their daughters that their “mom bodies” are strong and worthy of admiration.
What to do in face of so much pressure — for moms and daughters alike? It can be very hard to know how to change the conversation. One simple way to start is to stop the critical self-talk. Instead, model positive self-acceptance around girls. Eat balanced meals that include dessert; show your daughter that you aren’t “bad” or “good” for eating certain foods, but human. Exercise together as a way to model what a strong, powerful body can do. Show your daughter that you take pleasure in moving — dancing, running, lifting something heavy and resolving problems. No one can be a greater influence on a daughter’s developing body — and mind. It may not be “perfection” that they, or you, see — but it will be normalcy.