The other day I took a picture of a small group of 14-year-old girls. When I showed it to them, one of them gasped and said, “I’m so fat!” She’s about 5’5” and weighs approximately 115 pounds – not anyone’s idea of fat. But… she’s an adolescent.
I’m willing to bet that 3 or 4 years ago, she was happily content with her body and her looks. What happens to these girls in the meantime?
Day after day, girls are bombarded with messages from the media and society that tell them they’re not good enough: not thin enough, not pretty enough, not tall enough, not busty enough… and on and on. They’re given impossibly high standards by media that lies to us, showing us women that don’t actually exist as a standard for beauty:
We’re all well aware of the problem and many mothers share the frustration of wondering how they can help their daughters overcome this pervasive, and often dangerous, message. The media is all around us and we can be sure that our girls won’t stop watching TV, buying magazines, or seeing ads.
Yes, it’s easy to blame our daughters’ disastrous body image on the media, but the problem with this is that it leaves us helpless. The media isn’t going anywhere and it won’t be changing its methods anytime soon. Advertisers are not going to suddenly wake up and say, “Oh gee, girls are ripping themselves apart. Maybe we should send a healthier message.”
It’s also comforting to blame the media so we don’t have to face another harsher reality: this problem goes much deeper than just “the media.” At the heart of our daughters’ negative self-image lies our own lack of self-esteem. As mothers, we are our daughters’ role models, their most important teachers, the people they emulate (whether we believe it or not). Every time we pinch our fat, grimace at our wrinkles in the mirror, or sigh as we try on a dress that’s a little too tight, we send our girls a clear message: “I’m not good enough as I am. I don’t love myself.” The underlying lesson is: “I don’t love me because I’m not perfect. Therefore, I won’t love you if you’re not perfect and no one else will either.”
There is something we can do (though it’s certainly not easy). We can learn to love ourselves as we are, leaving the negative self-talk behind. We can refuse to follow a ridiculous starvation diet, do liposuction, or inject our faces with collagen in order to reach some impossible idea of “perfection,” in order to remain young and beautiful, keeping up with a warped society standard.
But what makes this difficult is that we can’t just pretend. Our true beliefs will show themselves in a multitude of ways. We have to stop thinking that our looks are everything. We have to love ourselves for our honesty, our kindness, our unique perspective on the world. Each and every one of us is special. Each and every one of us is beautiful just as we are. We need to be able to stand in front of the mirror, look ourselves in the eye and say out loud, “Wow, I am incredible. I love my eyes, I love this body that works so well for me, I love my smile that shows my happiness. I love me.” Try it. It’s not easy. But slowly we can change our self-talk into positive self-acceptance.
We can begin to look at the less-than-perfect women around us and appreciate them for more than their superficial beauty. We can comment on how radiant a pregnant woman looks, instead of how large her butt has become; on the twinkle in the old lady’s eye, rather than on the wrinkles she’s developing. As we learn to appreciate others for their strengths, rather than their weaknesses, we can be become kinder to ourselves and truly learn to love who we are, just as we are.
Then, and only then, will our daughters learn to love themselves.