There have been many articles called to my attention recently about how others’ deal with the issue of self-image and little girls. I have been careful not to respond specifically to one of them as, if there is anything I’ve learned as a parent, no matter what you do someone will think you are ruining your child. Both body image and being a “good enough” Mother are both such sensitive topics already without attacking another woman’s parenting decisions. So rather than going ape shit in response to the myriad of articles on the topic I thought I’d just add my own suggestion to the pot. I am not a perfect parent and I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you that I have changed my whole life (and career) based on my hope to give my baby a positive start for a healthy self esteem. I have been considering how I will do this since I found out she was coming, and this is where I’m at now.
All the beautiful princesses
My daughter has amazing hair. She looks like a bi-racial Shirley Temple and every one and their Mother must cross entire grocery stores to comment. Lola is initially pretty shy and ever since she was a wee baby complete strangers have not been able to help but approach us to talk about her beautiful curls. It drives her nuts.
Recently we had my daughter’s hair cut. I don’t know why it’s so important to my husband that she has them more frequently than even I do, but he does take her hair care very seriously. I had a hair stylist friend coming over to do my hair so I asked if she would mind cutting Lo’s as well. I knew Lola wouldn’t want one. She wants “long hair like a princess.” So I gave her the whole shpeil about cutting the ends so it will grow long and healthy and referred to the hair cut as a “princess haircut.”
Mind you, I didn’t provide her with the princess ideal. We took the gender neutral toy approach, buying her trucks, tools and items from the “blue isle” at the store. We don’t label things “boy things” and “girl things” and make sure to always clarify that some boys like what she calls girl things and vice versa. I married a feminist. We are that household. But we also don’t keep things from her and call them bad, because we believe that forbidding things could make them more desirable. In any case, my daughter, so far, has turned out to be a baby dolls, sparkles and princesses girl. And I’m into nurturing what she loves.
So we get the hair cut. My thoughtful friend brought over some hello kitty hair clips to give Lola when she was finished and Lo went skipping off to check out her new hair. She took one look in the mirror and burst into tears. ”Something’s not right Mommy…” she said with her lip quivering “…the curls are still here… I’m not like a princess.”
*This is the part where I literally have to pause from writing to let out a big sigh and hold back my own tears.”
A quarter century ago I was just about her age when I took a knife to my wrist because I thought I was too fat to realize my dream to be a ballerina. I didn’t cut. I don’t think I had any intention of doing so. But I knew that was something people did when they didn’t like themselves, and I did not like myself. My thighs jiggled unlike the other girls when we leapt across the dance class and my dreams felt completely out of reach. I was four.
While that is a sad story it’s the long-term implications that are more startling. It was never my body that was the problem (I was an average sized kid at that point). It was how I felt about it. And those feelings lead to a variety of unhealthy and risky behaviors. Cliff’s notes: disordered eating, crash dieting, abusive relationships, depression and a slew of high risk behaviors, all fueled by this same self-hatred. Self esteem is not some new agey bullshit we all just need to stop tripping off of, it’s the very value we place on our own existence.
THE reason I started working out and eating healthfully (and learning how to do both of those things) is because I wanted to pass those habits on to my daughter. Because the only women I knew who didn’t constantly berate themselves for the shape of their bodies were athletes. They didn’t abuse their bodies because they needed them to perform. They didn’t beat themselves up at the scale because they were focused on what their bodies could do. And while I realize there are many athlete women who also struggle with these issues as well, I knew the best way to help my daughter have a positive body image and a healthy lifestyle was to role model both. And that’s what I set out to do (which lead to 90lbs weight loss, starting this business and becoming a health food/exercise nut but began) with the following goals….
1. I never, ever, ever speak negatively about my body (or another’s) to my daughter. I really don’t often do this anyway. When she’s older I intend to share with her how I deal with insecurities when they pop up, but for now it’s body positive all the time. Little girls learn primarily from their Mothers to not like their bodies. Not magazines. I have the hands down best mother in the entire world, who like most women, has for as long as I can remember been on a diet. I grew up with weight watchers meals, diet everything and a Mother who spoke harshly of her body and belittled herself if she ate “bad foods.” While she would have never said anything to me about my body and was never anything but completely encouraging to me, it was my observation of her behaviors that taught me mine. If I am half the Mother my Mom was, Lola will be so fortunate but that is the one legacy I am ending here.
2. We eat healthy food at home. As the primary grocery shopper/meal planner/cook at my house I have control over the food that enters my home. And we eat good. I cook up a storm most nights of the week and it’s all clean eating, mostly vegetable based, whole foods. If we go out to eat or Lola is with someone else I do not police her diet. I control what is eaten at my home and I worry less about what she eats “sometimes.” Even if she isn’t interested in what we are eating I know that she is learning how to cook and eat from what I do and I feel good about that.
3. We don’t make a big fuss over food. We eat the foods we eat. There are vegetables and usually fruit on every plate. If she doesn’t eat it we don’t make her. My husband has been successful lately with getting her to eat veggies by giving her a small portion of something we know she likes with a small portion of vegetables and letting her have seconds when she finishes what’s on her plate. I don’t want to teach her to be obsessive over foods or make eating her greens some battle of the wills. I make food. It’s healthy and I serve it to my family. It’s not a big ordeal.
4. We educate her about food and exercise. It’s not like I sit her down for an hour every morning and explain the importance of HIIT vs steady state cardio, it’s much simpler and more natural than that. When I take her to the gym I talk about how working out is one way I take care of my body. I talk about how it makes me feel good and helps me be fast and strong. She likes to walk around the gym with me and identify the kinds of equipment there. We do the same thing with food, explaining what the food does for us as well as making sure she knows what all the produce is in the grocery store. It’s become kind of a game even, I let her find all the produce on my list for me. This way she is learning and eating healthy/exercise are just a normal part of her life and not something that is emphasized as “good vs bad” or something Mommy does to “fix herself.”
5. We talk about what our bodies can do. I tell Lola when I ran faster than the last time. I tell her when I felt strong during a workout. She gets up during dinner sometimes to show me how fast her vegetables are making her. We talk about how strong she is. When we talk bodies we talk about how cool they are. As she’s getting older we will start enrolling her in activities that she is interested in that are physical (as well as creative or intellectual) that she is interested in. Right now she has taken interest in ballet and karate so we will start there. But it won’t be about being a particular size or shape but rather about finding things she enjoys that keep her active and develop body awareness and confidence.
6. I tell her she is beautiful every damn day. I also tell her she is smart, funny and creative. I tell her I’m proud of her. I tell her she’s my favorite in the whole world. And I tell her she is beautiful. Because she is. I believe all women are beautiful and am not into the thinking that “only insides count.” My thinking is this; we are whole people, insides and outsides, and I refuse to reject any part of my daughter as being less important or trivial and to be ignored. So I tell her she’s brilliant. I tell her she’s hilarious. I tell her she’s good at all the things she’s good at. And I tell her she’s beautiful. Every damn day.
So here we are 3.5 years in and already have a girl baby in tears over her hair being “wrong.” I don’t know if it’s all the uncomfortable attention it brings her or if it really is just that the images of princesses she idolizes have straight hair but my response was swift.
I ran to my baby to listen to why she was upset. I reflected back what I was hearing (princesses don’t have curly hair) and ran to do a google search of “princesses with curly hair.” I then loudly gasped “Look at all these beautiful princesses!” Lola marveled at all the curls and wanted to scroll through them on her own.
My husband points out “beautiful princesses” wherever we go. He shows her a diverse cross-section of every type of woman (easy for him, he also believes all women to be beautiful). And often comments upon coming home about “all the beautiful princesses” they saw that day. So far we seem to have successfully dodged the great hair issue of Spring 2012.
I have known from the beginning I cannot possibly shelter her from the whole world, that images and notions of what is acceptable and beautiful will get to her. I know that it is highly likely, if not inevitable that she too will struggle with issues of self-worth and body negativity. I only hope to be a positive role model through it and to do everything I can to build a strong foundation to her self-esteem.
I want so much for her. I want to give her the world but I also want her to earn it. I want to keep her from every hurt but I also know that those bumps and bruises make for stronger character. I just love her so much it hurts, and while I know she will have her own journey my gift to her is this:
A Mother who takes care of herself, who uses exercise as a coping skill to deal with stress and generally feel good. A household filled with healthy foods and the knowledge of what they do and how to prepare them. A role model who rejects every standard of beauty in order to see it all around and in her mirror. Years upon years of positive messages about all the parts of her. And we read every day “**I like myself! I’m glad I’m me. There’s no one else I’d rather be. I like my eyes, my ears, my nose. I like my fingers and my toes… I like me on the inside, too, for all I think and say and do… No matter if they stop and stare, nobody ever anywhere, can make me feel that what they see is all there really is to me.”
**Excerpt from “I like Myself” by Karen Beaumont