I’m seeing a growing trend, and that is one where little girls are incredibly self-conscious about their bodies. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, people are more open to talking about it, or social media is pushing things off the edge, but it’s becoming a problem.
Occasionally I teach the neighborhood 8-9 year old girls little lessons. It’s a community thing where they come over to my house and we learn about different life things whether it’s making something or having discussions about topics that 8-9 year olds might be interested in. One lesson a while back was “Be-YOU-tiful” and talking about how they are great and beautiful just the way they are. I made them take selfies and then we put them up on my television for the entire group to see. I couldn’t believe that a group of 8-9 year old girls were so embarrassed to see their own selfies! They were red in the face and almost every single one of them commented on how much they hated some feature of themselves.
Least to say, it was devastating. So I had each girl write down 3 things they liked about everyone else there and then 3 things they liked about themselves. When it came to talking about themselves, they struggled to find 3 things they liked. Maybe I’m just too used to my sometimes overly-confident 5 year old who could list all day long what she likes about herself but I was shocked at their struggle to be positive at such a young age.
I remember when I was around 16-17, my body finally started looking a lot less like a 10 year old and finally started losing some of its baby chub. I was finally developing into a young woman who actually had a body. I was probably not eating as healthy as I should have (but that’s what happens when your parents give you lunch money everyday and you prefer the bread sticks and fries to a real meal) and all the hours of tennis I was playing each week were helping as well. During this time, I was feeling really good about myself. I didn’t have the extra weight my body so badly wanted to hold on to and I felt amazing. Yet my mother and, probably with the help from my mother, other neighborhood ladies and relatives started commenting about how I was too skinny and I was losing weight and it wasn’t healthy. In fact, I was furious that anybody felt like it was their business anyway, especially to comment directly to me.
This, along with my doctor at my 16-year appointment who told me I was overweight at 110 pounds and 5 feet tall (I should have been no more than 103 pounds or so to fit into a “normal” weight), started a bad downward spiral into me being completely self-conscious about the way I looked. Was I too skinny? Was I too fat? Had I actually lost weight or was I actually just leaning out? I also had too many women around me constantly talking about their weight and how they need to exercise and go on a diet.
It’s been 10 years since and I still struggle with my own perception of how I actually look. Although I wear a size 2, that’s not what I see in the mirror. I do not have a healthy outlook on my body and while I know that it’s all in my brain, I struggle to untrain what I have learned from my teenage years.
The above picture is me over the span of 10 years. The left one was when I was 18, the middle was when I was 20, and the right was at age 28. (It was really hard to find pictures of me where I wasn’t making silly faces. Apparently that used to be my thing). As I was going back and looking through all of my photos, the one thing I realized was that I’ve changed a lot. My body has completely changed, as well as my face. My weight has fluctuated since I was 18 but the most important thing about each of these pictures were that they were really good days in my life. I remember them each very distinctly for different reasons and that’s what’s important. And that is what we need to teach our girls. It doesn’t matter what you look like, all that matters is that you’re happy.
So here’s what I’ve learned to say to her about her body:
Teach your daughter to love her body, however it is.
If possible, don’t talk about the way her body looks. Don’t talk about weight gained or lost. Don’t say that her body looks incredible or that she looks unhealthy. Instead, talk about how incredible she is and how hard she works. Talk about things that will bring up her self worth and make her more confident in who she is. (On a mostly unrelated side note, don’t just tell her she’s good at things. Tell her why she’s good at it and what she’s done to accomplish things. Give her reasons to believe in herself.)
Don’t comment on the clothes she’s chosen (as long as they are okay by your standards). Don’t pull down her shirt every time she shows a bit of skin or pull up her pants every time she bends over. Instead, direct her on how to choose clothes more appropriate for her size. Take her for a shopping trip and compliment her on the clothes that fit right.
Don’t talk about your own body. Don’t talk about your new diet or how you gained too much weight over the holidays and need to cut back on your eating. Instead, talk about how good your body looks in the outfit you’re wearing because the clothes fit just right. Show her your own confidence by being who you are everyday and loving who you are.
Moreover, don’t talk about anyone else’s bodies. Don’t say anything positive. Don’t say anything negative. Just let her accept everyone’s bodies how they are without her making any judgments in her mind.
Instead, explain to her how to keep her own body healthy. Show, by example, the importance of exercise. Show, by example, the importance of eating healthy foods. Show, by example, the importance of balance. Don’t skip out on the cookie because it’ll make you gain weight. Encourage her to enjoy the great things in life.
Teach her skills. Teach her hobbies. Find what she is good at and let her run away with it.
Studies have shown that those who have high self confidence and self esteem in the way they look are able to get their bodies in better shape because they’re not thinking negatively about their body. Give her that boost. Raise her love for herself. Show her that she’s worth it. Because in the end, that’s all that really matters.
How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.
Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.
If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:
“You look so healthy!” is a great one.
Or how about, “You’re looking so strong.”
“I can see how happy you are — you’re glowing.”
Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.
Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one.
Teach her about kindness towards others, but also kindness towards yourself.
Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say, “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.
Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or mountain bike because it scares her and that’s a good thing sometimes.
Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you’ll never stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn’t absolutely in love with.
Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture.
Teach your daughter how to cook kale.
Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter.
Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of being outside.
Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide ribcages. It’s easy to hate these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs. She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.
Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.
~ Sarah Koppelkam