Mom as Role Model. The Importance of Modeling Positive Self-Acceptance Around Your Daughters.

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.

What do Teens Think About Self-Respect?

 Another term we could use instead of self-respect would be pride. So what does it mean to have self-respect or pride in oneself?

Teens sometimes have difficulty with the concept of self-respect because they tie it to closely to acceptance by their peers.  They truly believe that their friends have their best interest in mind, but sometimes we see that is not always the case.  True friends love us for who we are, help us through difficult times, and even talk us out of making mistakes.  They would never put us in harms way for the sake of popularity or make us the butt of a joke for a cheap laugh.  Sometimes teens confuse authentic friendships as well as intimate relationships with those that can actually be quite damaging.  If you ask a teen to define self-respect, most of them can. However, they have a difficult time turning those words into action.  They don’t understand what self-respect looks like in practice or action. In my book, Girl Talk, I  talk to teens about their views on self-respect, what it really is and where they think they themselves or other teens go wrong in relation to this concept. Also, I explore and provide teens as well as parents with concrete examples of authentic relationships, healthy self-respect in action and ways to improve it.

How Teens Define Self-Esteem

I love to ask teen girls to define self-esteem. Some of them give very poignant definitions of self-esteem. They mention how they feels about themselves and how others view them as well. They use words such as self-image, self-love, respect, confidence and dignity. Others talk about self-esteem in relation to what it is not. As in, it’s not putting yourself down, telling yourself that you are fat, doing what others tell you, and it’s not letting people walk all over you. Some of the girls are more comfortable giving examples of how they see self-esteem in their life instead of giving me a definition. Some tell me stories related to positive self-esteem. I hear stories of doing well on a test, having a boy like them, or scoring a goal during a sporting event. While others relay stories about negative self-esteem. These stories usually start with the phrase “let me tell you about the worst day of my life” and usually end with somebody fighting, crying, lying to a parent, throwing up/passing out at a party and/or all of the above. A few have told me how their self-esteem depends upon the situation they are in and therefore couldn’t give me one concrete definition. A chameleon approach. As in, with their academics they feel more confident, but when it comes to fitting in with their peers they feel less comfortable and have lower self-esteem. And lastly, some girls simply used free association to define self-esteem and say words like: body image, maturity, respect, confidence, and liking yourself. What I find so surprising is that they can articulate that the core concept of self-esteem comes from within, yet when trying to build that self-esteem, they look externally. To friends, to trends and most likely to boys. Obviously, some of these answers vary depending upon the girl’s age, life experiences and ability to articulate self-esteem. However, by and large they seek outside themselves for validation of self-esteem. We need to challenge their thinking and offer them ways of approaching self-esteem internally. To focus inward and give useful feedback, tools and techniques that can help build their self-esteem today, tomorrow and the next no matter what life throws their way.