Getting Real About Body Image

Filed under: Development: Tweens

Is maintaining a positive body image even possible anymore? Image: sxc.hu

A few days ago, as we drove to gymnastics class, my eight-year-old said something I had hoped to never hear from her: "I don't like my legs." My heart sank as I realized that despite my careful monitoring of her viewing and reading material, she has already learned to be critical of her own appearance. She went on to explain that her dissatisfaction was due not to some perceived flaw in the shape or size of her legs, but with the collection of bruises currently scattered about them.

This made me feel only slightly better. Is her displeasure truly only temporary and something that will vanish along with the deep purple spots on her shins? Or is this the beginning of the end of her acceptance and love of herself the way she is?

In a world where skinny, photo-shopped models scream "This is how you should look!", what is a mother to do to help her daughter maintain a positive body image? According to writer Donna Fish, you can't do anything. The message that happiness belongs to those with skinny thighs and perfect breasts is insidious and even girls who don't watch television or read magazines are hearing it loud and clear.

Fish, a mother of a tween and two teens herself, believes that expecting your daughter to maintain a positive body image is unrealistic and advises parents to rid themselves of that goal. Self-loathing is normal. But while there may be no stopping that train of discontent, she says there are things you can do to prevent being run over by it. She gives advice on dealing with self-critical girls that mostly consists of tips on how not to get sucked into their body drama:

"They will try to 'off load' the 'bad feelings' about themselves onto you. This is done by telling you things like: "I hate my thighs", or: "I always look terrible". They need to 'off load' the intensity of their feelings and unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you think about it, you are their target. That way, they get to relieve the pressure. Oh, the joys of motherhood!"

I get where she is coming from and recognize that so much of parenting teens is about staying out of the line of fire. But the idea that it is normal for girls to feel intensely bad about themselves makes me incredibly sad. And it also makes me angry. Girls comparing themselves to other girls is normal and has been happening forever. What has changed is the girls they are comparing themselves to. Where we used to eye our classmates and measure ourselves against those we found most beautiful, girls today are being trained to measure themselves against unreal girls. Fake and airbrushed and impossibly thin, they in no way depict the average female.

Fish may be right -- there may be no way to protect our daughters from the onslaught of this twisted popular culture. But I am not quite ready to throw in the towel. I will continue to boycott the magazines, I will praise my girl for her efforts and accomplishments and not her looks and, most importantly, I will set a good example by loving my own self just the way I am.

How are you helping your daughters maintain their self-esteem and love themselves they way they are?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.