In our modern society, it has become increasingly difficult to protect our young girls from the barrage of body-image pressure from the media, advertising, and peers. As mothers, fathers, mentors, teachers, and role models, we should all be very concerned about the messages we are sending young girls about their bodies and their concept of self-worth. A major consequence for girls growing up in such a “Body-Obsessed” society is the pressure to conform physically—resulting in issues of self-worth based on appearance, disordered eating to achieve a perceived “ideal” weight/body type, or engaging in promiscuous behaviors in order to be seen as “attractive” or “wanted.”
Faced with such overwhelming cultural influences from nearly every angle, it might seem impossible to raise our young girls to become the strong, healthy, confident, self-empowered, & self-aware women we know that they can be. Fortunately, there are some VERY SIMPLE THINGS that we can ALL do, whether we are parents, or simply mentors and role-models in the eyes of our children!
1. Model a Healthy Body Appreciation
First and foremost, it is crucial that we model “Body Confidence.” If you are constantly voicing criticism of your own body (“I’m too fat to wear a dress like that,”) your daughter will begin viewing her own body critically. If you obsess over what you should or should not eat, or how the food that you eat is going to negatively affect your body (“Oh I’m going to have to wear my fat-pants tomorrow”) you are subconsciously programming your daughter to have an unhealthy relationship with food and her weight.
As women, it is so important to model Body Confidence, by voicing acceptance and appreciation for our bodies, not only for the parts we appreciate visually, but also for the things that we are able to do with our bodies.
Likewise, the focus of family meals should be about connecting, bonding, and enjoying the nutritional value and flavors of the food you eat. Have Gratitude for your meals! It is important to emphasize eating healthy and appreciating being healthy, without placing guilt on yourself for indulging in a small dessert (“I’m going to be ‘bad’ and eat a slice of cake.”) Modeling healthy, occasional indulging is just as important as modeling healthy eating. We should still be educating children about WHY too much sugar is unhealthy, but NOT by connecting that to appearance/self-worth.
As men and fathers, it is equally important for you to praise and support your daughter and wife/significant other for all of their positive attributes—not only for being beautiful, but also for their emotional qualities…compliment them for how they make you feel, how you see them positively affect others around them, and the uplifting impact they have had on you.
2. Guide & Shield
It is essential to protect your young daughter from the over-sexualizing culture of our society as much as possible, for as long as possible…avoid buying clothing with labels and symbols that focus on sexuality. As your daughter gets older, encourage her self-expression and style-creativity, but, also be open to having an honest discussion about why something is too form-fitting or revealing, and how that may be attracting the wrong type of person’s attention. (This scenario is bound to happen sooner than you will expect, so be prepared to take some time with this conversation.)
Avoid “laying down the law” about what you consider inappropriate—and help her understand how she may be perceived by others. Be open in allowing her to confide what kind of attention she DOES want to attract, and/or from whom, and offer to help her achieve her goal with regards to self-expression & fashion, in a more appropriate way.
As parents, teachers, mentors, and role models, we all need to take an interest in the types of media the kids are watching. Obviously, we need to encourage age-appropriate television, as well as avoid watching sensationalized t.v. shows with an emphasis on women as objects of beauty or sexuality, around the kids. When it comes to television, even kid-friendly-channels like Nickelodeon and Disney are including increasingly more sexual-innuendo in many of their programs. As often as you can stand it, try to watch your daughter’s favorite television shows with her, and comment on how silly it is when such and such character is obsessed with her appearance. Model curiosity in the character’s other attributes, such as her intelligence, or what kind of a person she is, etc.
3. Connect with Movement
Take time to do activities that encourage healthy forms of physical fitness with your daughter as a means of bonding—NOT as a means of achieving a certain physical appearance. Avoid making negative comments about fitness, such as “Oh I really need to go for a jog because I ate that piece of cake last night.” Instead, use it as an excuse to spend some quality time with her, and make her feel special. Encourage her to try different activities with you. Model enjoyment and appreciation of physical activity, and explain all the benefits of exercise the YOU enjoy (such as clearing your mind, getting your blood flowing, being strong and capable, getting pent-up energy out, etc.) instead of using exercise to achieve a certain physical appearance.
Likewise, use exercise as a healthy coping response. For example, if your daughter has a difficult day at school, and comes home frustrated or angry, ask her to go on a walk with you to get some fresh air, sunshine, or lift her mood. Helping your daughter develop a healthy relationship with exercise early on in life, will lead to her having much healthier responses to stress later in life, as well as build a foundation for good health, stamina, and strength.
4. Keep the Lines of Communication OPEN
Be there for her on that inevitable day, when she comes to you with that first hint of self-doubt about her body or her appearance. Sympathize with her feelings of inadequacy, and validate them. Let her know that you too, have struggled with loving every part of your body. Avoid invalidating her feelings about herself (“Oh you just had a bad day—you are overreacting about your appearance right now”) and instead, remain present with her while she processes how she is feeling.
Be sure to share how you managed to overcome your dissatisfaction about your own body when you were her age. (“My thighs may not have been as toned as I would’ve liked, but I realized that lots of beautiful women have an area that isn’t perfect!”)
Encourage a realistic view of the other girls and women in your daughter’s life—without judgment or negativity. Speak kindly about others, while noting that everyone is unique and different in their own beautiful way. Avoid making comparisons to help her feel better, such as “see how so-and-so is much heavier than you? You should feel good about yourself!”
(This is a very important point, that many mothers and fathers unintentionally make the mistake of using as a means to help their daughter feel better—if you are encouraging your daughter to see other girls’ imperfections as a form of competition, she may feel better temporarily, but this will only reinforce the belief that she must evaluate her self-worth based upon her body in comparison to other girls’ bodies.)
Shift the focus from who or what she has seen on television, if the conversation moves in that direction. Help her to understand how much editing, staging, and lighting goes into all the images we see on the screen and in advertising.
Finally, remember to emphasize all of her other, non-physical qualities that you love about her, such as her kind heart, her strength to overcome challenges, or how intelligent she is; and, most importantly, emphasize how proud of her you are, and how much it means to you that she confided in you for support.
These are just a few simple strategies for raising healthy, confident, emotionally-balanced girls…Please share yours!