When I stepped off the scale at my annual doctor appointment when I was nine years old, my mother jumped on right after and exclaimed, “Look! I weigh less than you.” I still remember the smell of the office and the afternoon light on the walls. It was like everything froze in time. That immediate and stinging comparison, her pride in a number, a number as my value — all at a time when my body was developing and growing — had a huge impact on me. To put it simply, like many women, I’ve struggled with my body image over the years.
Getting pregnant at 40 was a pivotal part of my recovery. It reintroduced my body to myself as something capable of amazing things such as creating and carrying life. As a parent, it’s my job to teach my daughter body positivity and help her grow to be strong, healthy and confident.
Raising girls to have a healthy body image is complex and takes intentional, consistent attention. Unfortunately, there’s no magic moment when you’ve given her all she needs, but here are four places to start:
Deal with your own stuff. The scale example required me to unpack the ways my mother shaped my view of my body, food and womanhood. Becoming a role model forces you to deal with your stuff. Early in my teaching career, I unwittingly became a role model for the girls in my classes as they watched me for cues about body image and weight. They noticed how I talked about myself, other women, food and exercise. Dealing with my stuff has allowed me to raise my daughter with a healthy self-image. Dealing with your stuff starts with being more conscious of your deeply ingrained beliefs and stereotypes and challenging them.
Keep her moving. Whenever possible, get her involved with activities that connect her to her physical body in fun and empowering ways (such as Girls on the Run!). Encourage her to develop physical skills and experience all the amazing things her body can do. My daughter has tried t-ball, soccer and ballet — and I want her to know her body can tumble, throw, kick, twirl, run, skip and glide. I want her to know that her body is more than an object. Keeping her active will get trickier around middle school. You will need to be creative, but don’t let her drop out! The Heart & Sole program for 6th-8th grade girls is the perfect opportunity to keep her motivation going.
Be her lens. Sweat the small stuff. Don’t let others’ comments about your daughter’s body — or anyone else’s body, for that matter — slide. Ever since she was little, whenever strangers or familiar people would comment, “She’s so beautiful,” I would respond with “and smart and funny, too.” When we are bombarded in the checkout line by photoshopped magazine covers, I start a discussion: “That’s interesting. What do you think about what you’re seeing? How does it make you feel?”
Create allies. Recently, I had to ask my sister to stop making negative comments about herself in front of my daughter. It was hard to gather the courage to say this, but she hadn’t noticed she was doing it, and it forced her to deal with her stuff (see above). The men in a girl’s life have an enormous impact on self-image as well. Be sure the men in your daughter’s life understand how small comments matter and how silence matters as well when the situation calls for it.
Raising a girl with a healthy body image is complicated but so worth it. If she can be free of limiting, external expectations about her body, then she can be free to truly be herself and unleash her limitless potential.