Every girl has that “girls body image” moment. Mine was in high school when I lost four pounds over a week of summer charity work and when I returned, my envious school friends said I looked “really skinny.” For my sister, it was in the fifth grade, when she developed early and was bullied for her looks by an adult yard monitor. I wonder and worry what my daughter’s moment will be, the first moment she realizes her body is on display to the world.
I spoke with Drury University Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Languages, Dr. Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols. Nichols, who is raising a confident 14-year-old daughter, says her main strategy to address body image issues is that she has kept an ongoing dialogue with her daughter throughout childhood, focusing on health over appearance. She’s also a very involved parent: she has helped her daughter join in with cooking via stepstool since she was very little, and they now do yoga together—but the focus isn’t just on physical fitness.
“She sees, I think, that yoga helps with mental and emotional health,” Nichols explains. “I was helping her fill out an application for something not long ago, and one of the questions was ‘how do you deal with stress?’ She wrote, ‘yoga breathing.’ This made me very happy.”
I bring baby to my apartment’s fitness center a couple times a week while I lift weights and dream of the day when she’s old enough to join me. But as for cooking together, I’ll have to make a serious effort to educate my daughter about food and provide a healthy variety for her. It’s not that we eat a lot of junk food, but I tend to stagger between extremes — eating no sugar and a gazillion greens one week to eating obscene amounts of dessert the next. I don’t want to blame my mother for these habits, but growing up she was the Paula Deen type, thinking a balanced meal meant mostly carbs and a meat dish (and a little, or a lot, of dessert never hurt anyone).
And I do remember my mother trash-talking her figure, something she still does. I don’t get it. I always thought she was beautiful with her long red hair, freckles and petite frame. But she’s a 1950’s housewife reincarnate, replete with an hour-and-a-half beauty routine in the morning even on days when my dad is the only person she sees.
But aside from losing one’s own self confidence, I think there’s even greater societal damage to be done by not accepting and loving one’s own body.
I’ve noticed that as my mom and her mom age, they are extremely critical of other people’s appearances due to their own insecurities. Almost every story they tell about running into an old friend involves some comment like “she’s gotten sooooo thin, it worries me” or “she’s reeeeeal big, isn’t she?” Negativity breeds negativity, and I would hate for my little girl to grow up hearing me talk about other human beings like they’re just slabs of meat to be scrutinized.
Nichol’s daughter was witness to a group of girls trash-talking another one–not for her weight, but her sexual orientation. Nichol’s daughter “actually stood up and told them that what they were doing was not right and she wasn’t going to sit and listen to it. Her teacher hugged her.” Nichols adds, “It was one of the biggest ‘proud mom’ moments that I’ve had—she stood up for somebody who was being labeled as ‘different.’”
Even though this isn’t directly related to “girls body image” I think this makes an essential point. It isn’t just that we must model love for our own bodies, but we must also teach our children that each person is unique and no one deserves to be harassed for their uniqueness. Whether someone else is overweight, underweight, has a big nose, large breasts, is LGBT or whatever, it’s none of our damn business criticizing them for it. It only takes one stroll around the mall to see that people truly do come in ALL shapes, sizes and colors, and I plan to show my daughter exactly that.
But I truly hope my daughter can appreciate her uniqueness, too, that when she looks in the mirror she doesn’t think “what could I change?” but instead, “I’m the only person in the world living in this exact body, and if anyone thinks I should change, they’re the ones with the problem.”
I know that mentality starts with me, her first female role model.
And I’ve been trying. Less mirror time, a minimalist wardrobe. This attempt at a body image overhaul started a few months ago when I chopped my long locks (always a security blanket) in favor of a pixie. It’s jarring how much less frequently I’m checked out by random guys now, something that actually made me a little sad at first. But it’s forced some serious questions, like why do I need to be acknowledged as attractive by complete strangers? Why do I even need to be acknowledged as attractive by anyone if I’m enjoying my life and attempting to fulfill my passions? And by logic, muting my conventional sex appeal should weed out those who never truly appreciated my heart and mind in the first place.
It’s definitely a work in progress. I have tried to avoid negative mirror talk since baby’s birth, but I still tend to gloss over the perks of new motherhood (like larger breasts, something I’d always longed for) in favor of bemoaning what I perceive as negative, like my still-saggy abdomen and those stubborn stretch marks on my hips. Even when I’m feeling confident, even when the scale has just told me I’m a reasonable 125 pounds, I’ll still “joke” about getting my “fat” butt into skinny jeans or what I need to do to fix my “flabby” arms.
It would’ve been best to have started accepting myself long before I had a child. But these destructive attitudes die hard, and now I must kill them off for my daughter’s sake. Nichols makes the point that you can’t just wait until your child is a teen to teach her to love her body—it’s something that builds throughout childhood. She quotes Garrison Keillor, “nothing you do for your children is ever wasted,” and adds, “you might think that the things you say and do aren’t having an effect, but time will show how much they do.” I just hope I didn’t start too late.