Posted Heather Pressley, PhD on 10/24/2017 |Wellness Tips
When I stepped off the scale at my annual doctor appointment when I was nine years old, my mother jumped on right after me and exclaimed, “Look! I weigh less than you.” To this day, I can only explain by saying, it was my mother and it was the 70s. 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 forty was a pivotal part of my recovery. It reintroduced my body to myself as something that was capable of amazing things such as creating and carrying life. Motherhood shifted me yet again as our mothers and the women in our lives are our blueprint for the ways we think about our bodies. As a mother, it’s my job to teach my daughter body positivity and, working for a girls empowerment organization, I’ve made it my official job to create programs that help girls grow to be strong, healthy and confident.
Raising girls with healthy body image is complex and takes intentional and consistent attention. Unfortunately, there’s no “poof” magic moment when you’ve given her all she needs and off she goes, but here are four places to start:
Deal with you own stuff. The scale example is indicative of my stuff and 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 engrained 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 (Girls on the Run is one option). Let her develop her physical skills and experience all the amazing things her body can do. My daughter has tried t-ball (too boring), soccer (loved it but wanted to score in both goals), ballet (too much time inside) and I want her to know her body can tumble, throw, kick, twirl, run, skip, glide. I want her to know deeply 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!
Be her lens. I wrote another blog about sweating the small stuff when it comes to gender stereotypes, and I’ll say the same here, 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, when strangers or familiar people comment, “she so beautiful.” I respond with “and smart and funny, too.” When we are bombarded in the checkout line by covers of magazines that represent women as half-naked, painted objects, I say something. “That’s interesting. What do you think about what you’re seeing? How does it make you feel?” Sometimes we’ll talk about it and sometimes she’ll ask for a fruit snack.
Create allies. Recently, I had to ask my favorite 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 that she was doing and it forced her to deal with her stuff (see #1). 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.
Raising a girl with a healthy body image is complicated but worth it. If she can be free of limiting, external expectations about her body, then she can be free to truly be herself and free to truly pursue her potential.