How to Teach Your Daughter to Hate Her Body. Or Not

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“Our kids are growing up in a world that still judges women by their looks. Impossible perfections bombard them from every screen and magazine. There is no way to shield them, but we can interpret it for them.”

We’re standing on the porch steps after dinner, three women, all moms, in the late warm evening of summer, talking dresses for an upcoming wedding shower when the conversation turns to knees. Yes, knees.

“I just got two dresses,” one of the women says. “But I think I’ll wear the maxi Saturday night. I hate my knees.”

Of all the many ways we women can be unsatisfied with what we’ve got, it never occurred to me that knees might be a trouble spot. But it’s not just her.

“Me too,” says the other. “I hate my knees. That’s why I never wear shorts.”

This is what we do, we women.

We scrutinize our bodies, fixating on flaws, any tiny thing we don’t like about our physical selves, and we talk, talk, talk about it.  We say we need to diet. We say we don’t like our bellies. We say our thighs are too big.

The problem is:

When we say negative things about ourselves in front of our daughters, as moms often do, we not only bring ourselves down with the criticism, we bring our girls along.

Word by word, we pass on our body issues. All the self-deprecating comments quietly and profoundly undermine our other efforts to help them develop a healthy sense of self.

Maybe this is not news to you.

Crazy as it sounds though, I hadn’t considered how every time I say, “My nose is too big” in front of my daughters, I teach them the art of self-loathing. Until I read this, I didn’t understand how openly disliking my nose was undoing my work to help them be kind to themselves. Duh!

When my daughters were small, it was easy to keep tight control on the shows they watched, the music they heard and the books they read. TV in our house meant PBS.  Commercials did not exist. For a few blissful years, it was almost as if they weren’t growing up in a world where they would be continually assaulted by a body-is-everything message to women.

We don’t talk about eating in terms of weight. We don’t talk about weight at all.  We talk health and hygiene. The message I go for is to always take good care of yourself because you only have this one body to carry you around for maybe 100 years, a long time for anything to last.

I tell them bodies come in different shapes and shades and sizes and how boring would it be if everyone looked the same?

For years, the single Barbie in our house when my kids were young was a ratty-hair hand-me-down that my older daughter called her Bybee doll — and she had little interest in playing with it.

I consciously isolated them from the almost inescapable message that a girl’s worth is defined by her body.

Unfortunately, I did not isolate them from me. While I was busy telling them to love themselves, I was also making those nose comments, too. I had no problem saying things about myself in front of them that I would never say about anyone else.

I count myself among the lucky ones. My daughters aren’t tweens who spend hours in front of the mirror agonizing over their appearances. If body image is already an issue for either of them, neither shows outward signs of concern. I’ve never heard a self-critical comment or even a self-aware comment about looks from either of them. Not about their own. Not about anyone’s.

At 12 and 9, they will still happily leave for school in the too-small clothes they refuse to part with, hair dripping from the shower, half-brushed or not brushed at all.

At this age, I’ll take indifference over obsession.

Our kids are growing up in a world that still judges women by their looks. Impossible perfections bombard them from every screen and magazine. There is no way to shield them, but we can interpret it for them.

And we can stop ourselves from becoming part of their problem.

More from Holly Goodman

How to Connect with Your Older Kids Through Books

Summer is Long, Pace Yourself: How to Survive Your Tween’s Summer Vacation

On Kids’ and Independence: Are We Parenting to Our Kids’ Past Instead of Our Present?

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