I have a daughter, and I think she is the most beautiful little girl in all the world. She absolutely delights me.
The other day, we were getting ready together. I noticed her soft, round little features. I noticed the way she crinkled up her nose to smile. I noticed her confidence as she stuck her belly out and look in the mirror. I noticed her contentment with picking clothes she liked, detached from any sort of expectation of how they looked on her body. And I thought with a sinking feeling, not for the first time, that I wished I could bottle up this confidence for her and help her keep it forever.
The topic of body image scares me for her.
It scares me because I know how much I struggled with it as a young girl. It scares me because I know how much I continue to struggle with it now. I wish with all my heart that I could choose outfits based on fabrics and colors and styles that I loved, completely devoid of any judgement of how they look on my body. But I can’t. Those things factor in, yes, but ultimately, it always comes down to one thing: What makes me appear smallest?
I don’t know what it is about our culture telling women that they need to physically take up less space, but the idea that this could someday become my daughter’s belief about her own body makes me want to weep.
I don’t want her to take up less space in this world. I want her to move through it with confidence and lightheartedness and an understanding that her worth doesn’t come from a flat tummy or single digit jean size.
Recently, I’ve been reading about how our tendency to only compliment little girls based on their looks can hurt them in the long run, as it links value to appearance. And as women of all different ages already know, we have so very little control over our appearance. We have our genes to contend with. We have hormones. We have a body built to grow babies – and with it – an ability to physically change our own body shape and size. And let’s not forget – we age.
While there are so many factors we can’t control about how we physically look, there are all the other ways that make us who we are that we can control. These are the things that we can hold on to whether we are 16 with acne or 32 with a baby belly or 45 with fine lines. These qualities are the ones with intrinsic value, and as a result, are the qualities that experts are now saying we should be complimenting our little girls on.
I asked a trusted voice what her thoughts were on this subject and she echoed what the research is saying. She told me that I can absolutely tell my daughter she is beautiful, but to also be mindful of including plenty of non appearance based praise. She suggested that I point out to my daughter all the many things she does that adds value to her life that she can continue to develop and be proud of for the rest of her life.
Big picture, it’s not just about focusing on internals that you can control to distract you from externals that you can’t control. It’s about changing the discussion entirely. The idea that I’m even approaching this topic from an issue of “control” should tell us all something about the messages women are bombarded with about body image, beauty, and confidence.
I want my daughter to eat healthy. I want her to exercise. I want her to take care of her physical body. But I also want her to take care of herself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, too. So for me, maybe the larger issue here is that we tend to limit our positive reinforcement to externals when it comes to girls. And I just want so much more for my daughter.
I’m going to continue to tell my daughter that she is the most lovely little girl I’ve ever seen – because she is. But I’m also working on noticing and calling out her many other strong and wonderful attributes. I’m thanking her for the ways she takes care of her family. I’m laughing with her and telling her how fun she is. I’m complimenting her on her ability to watch others and try to learn from them. I’m admiring the way she is always willing to try.
I’m also the one reaching to turn up the volume when she comes into the kitchen with me and starts dancing. I’m putting out the crayons so she can color. I’m letting her decide what she wants to wear, and how she wants to do her hair. I’m giving her old baby bottles so she can sit with me as we feed our babies together. I’m grabbing a pile of the boys’ LEGO’S so she can build, too. I’m noticing all the things that make her smile and come alive and spark an interest.
We are all so much more than just a body. We are a mind, a spirit, a soul. We have dreams and goals and passions and interests. And while I think there is a part of us that is all hardwired to notice and admire beauty, I want my daughter’s value and sense of self to come from knowing that she is beautiful – most importantly – because of who she is, not how she looks.
There are so many mirrors in this world. Literally, and figuratively. So many ways that we can hold our body image up to those of others around us and feel lost in the comparison game. I want to be a different type of mirror for my daughter. I want to reflect back to her all that is deep within her that makes her, her. Because those are the things that give her value. That, is what makes her so special. That, is what makes her – beautiful.
Now, and always.
Moms of girls – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you try and praise your daughter(s) for a variety of physical and non physical attributes? How are you fostering a healthy body image for your daughter(s)?