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.

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Social Media and Self-Esteem: Show the Good Achieved by Girls.

It’s impossible to not think ahead to what changes we want to see on TV, the internet and in print magazines.  One wish is that the media would stop focusing just on the negative aspects of what teenage girls do and stop portraying their behavior as problematic or sensationalistic.  So many girls have done amazing things as this list shows, and have created change that has resulted in world-wide advances for other girls.

Think of Malala Yousafzai, 15, and how her terrible injury has resulted in significant awareness not only of the oppression girls still face in obtaining an education, but also in her determination to change this not only for herself but for her sisters.  She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as well as TIME magazine‘s person of the year.  Within the United States girls have been fighting back against institutionalized sexism within the media more vigorously than ever, resulting in real changes by major corporations, as well as girls who are using their knowledge and skills to contribute to science, and create other notable inventions.

A few years ago Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com, co-founded a list called the REAL Hot 100 that highlighted activists who were creating real difference in the world, playing on the idea of what makes a girl “hot.”  In their definition being “hot” doesn’t mean physical beauty but doing work that shows character, determination, and the desire to do good, particularly for other girls and women.  The list is no longer active, but some of the girls and young women chosen are highlighted here.

Shows such as MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” sensationalize teenagers who are facing huge obstacles — trying to be a good mother, often not in optimal circumstances.  Statistically, the teen birthrate is at the lowest it has ever been within the United States.  Yet, the media chooses to highlight the dramas and difficulties these teens face, rather than focus on positive developments that teenagers are contributing.  A recent story about a “small thing” that teenage girls spontaneously did at their middle school got scant coverage, but it shows ways in which girls are actively fighting media messages about their physical bodies and they are finding other ways to support each other and to bolster their self-esteem.

The girls at District 96 Woodlawn Middle School used Post-It notes to cover a bathroom mirror with affirmations that “displayed encouraging, confidence-building ideas and suggestions for their classmates” about “their real beauty, ability, and potential” according to a Buffalo Grove Patch article.  The school’s principal Greg Grana is quoted as saying, “As a principal, I have never been more proud of my students as for these self-initiated actions.”

We all know that reality-TV encourages drama and strife and feeds us a cultural diet that doesn’t reflect the reality of many people.  More media attention on the positive changes girls are making for themselves and for others would rebalance the picture about girls’ potential and encourage girls to think about themselves more positively and how to build on what other girls are already doing.