This week’s guest post is written by Barb Steinberg, a licensed, masters-level social worker with over 20 years of experience working with teens.
“Mom, am I fat?”
You quickly — perhaps too quickly — rush to your daughter’s side.
“Why would you say that, sweetie?”
“You aren’t fat!”
“Did someone say something to you?!”
You feel that mama bear anger boiling. Unconsciously, you have flashbacks to your childhood. That time your doctor wrote “obese” on your chart. The rush of blood to your cheeks when you were made fun of for your skinny legs. The tears you shed over that birthmark on your face.
Why is our relationship with our bodies so complicated?
Studies tell us that our girls today struggle to love and accept their bodies. The Journal of Adolescent Health reported that 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. In Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD’s book, I’m Like, So Fat!, she reported that over half of teenage girls use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives. The film Miss Representation shared the alarming news that the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on those under 18 more than tripled in the ten years from 1997 to 2007.
Our easy access to a constant stream of images has only increased the focus on our outward appearance. On prime-time television, girls can watch fashion shows in which models made to resemble little girls parade around in sexy lingerie. Thanks to a new phenomenon called “age compression”, younger children are adopting behaviors and preferences of older siblings and their friends, so companies feel justified marketing products like mascara, lip gloss, padded bras and questionable clothing to younger and younger children. Whether you think selfies are a form of empowerment or not, what is agreed upon is that teens, and especially girls, spend an enormous amount of time and effort curating an online persona, which is largely based on how they look.
With all of this working against us, it’s easy to throw up our hands.
As parents, how are we able to give our daughters the greatest gift they can possibly receive this Valentine’s Day: a greater appreciation and love of their bodies?
Here are a few things I’d suggest to get started:
Leave your bags at the door. As females, many of us have baggage about our body. Even as adults, we struggle to accept our post-baby bodies. When your blood begins to boil about something a classmate said to your daughter, check in with yourself. Is this about your daughter, or you? Take a breath. Be aware of how your past is affecting the way you view this area of parenting.
Be kind. For our girls (and boys!), we must create a positive body culture at home. What does this mean? Declare your home a “fat free talk zone” and encourage your daughters to carry this outside of your home. Set the expectation that your home is not a place to talk negatively about your bodies, and that the word “fat” has no place in your home. Consider removing that scale from the family bathroom. A number cannot tell you and your daughters how you feel about yourselves, nor can it dictate what sort of day you should have.
Look on the bright side. Sit down with your daughter and make a list of the positive qualities about herself (and yourself) that have nothing to do with the way you look. Display the list in a place you will both see it and where you can add to it. Train your brain to look for the good by encouraging her to start a gratitude journal or share a thumbs up (and thumbs down, because we know life’s not all rosy) at dinner.
Start a conversation. When your daughter says she feels fat, ask her what is making her feel that way. Try to get to her underlying thoughts and emotions. It may have nothing to do with her body, but instead with a distressing event that happened recently. We need to ask our girls how they feel about their bodies. They may feel better than we think they do. Remind your daughters regularly that every body is different. Even if we ate the same thing, did the same amount of exercise for a whole year, we would not all look the same at the end of the year.
Be a role model. Think about how you define beauty. Do you point out thin, traditionally beautiful women and compliment them? How do you model health and self-love in your own life? Encourage and demonstrate doing things to show your body that you appreciate it: taking a bubble bath, indulging in a nap, going for a walk or wearing comfortable clothes. Say out loud what you like about yourself. Encourage your daughter to move her body by having her witness you doing something you enjoy, such as dancing, swimming, hula hooping, biking or ice skating.
Seize teachable moments. Fortunately or unfortunately, teachable moments are all around us. It won’t take long to find an example of how a celebrity was retouched, and thankfully, there are more and more examples of magazines taking a pledge to avoid the use of Photoshop. Most girls are angry when they learn magazines are changing what they think we want to see, and so you can help her channel that energy into being a part of the solution.
The most powerful message we can send to our girls is: You are not your body. You have a body but it is not who you are. You are so much more!
Barb Steinberg, LMSW is a teen life coach and workshop facilitator who transforms the lives of adolescent girls and the adults who care about them. She will lead a workshop for parents of girls 10 and older, Helping Our Girls Love Their Bodies, on Saturday, February 22nd in collaboration with The Griffin School. Pre-registration is required.