Last week my four-year-old daughter, Maya, had a wellness checkup with her pediatrician. As we waited for the doctor to come into the examination room, she stepped on the scale and excitedly exclaimed, “Mommy, look how huge I got!”
“Yes, my love, you are growing up!” I replied with a level of enthusiasm that matched her happiness over her growth.
There she was—my active, witty, and spirited daughter—standing on a scale in her underpants and feeling so proud of her body. In that moment, I was struck by how much my heart ached to freeze that moment in time—a precious moment because I didn’t know how much longer it would last. Excited to step on a scale. Pleased with her “huge” growth. Blissfully oblivious to the fact that the scale required some adjustment to accurately measure her height and weight. Satisfied with her body just the way it is. According to research study by the University of Central Florida, my daughter’s time is almost up. Nearly half of three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat.
Since Maya’s fifth birthday is just around the corner, we recently made the transition from shopping in the toddler-size clothing section to children’s sizes. I took a recent trip to Gap Kids, planning to purchase some new pants for my healthy, growing (huge, as she put it) daughter. As I explored the options, I felt the same ache I’d experienced in the pediatrician’s office a few weeks earlier. It definitely wouldn’t be much longer before she becomes aware of how much emphasis is placed on size . . . because there it was in large letters on the visual display board strategically placed front and center in the jeans section: S-K-I-N-N-Y. (Even the font style they used on the sign was skinny!)
I literally began calculating my time—let’s see, Maya already knows her letters, reading begins in kindergarten, it’s not such a hard word to pronounce. . . . I determined that I have about a year and some odd months left before she becomes aware that her jean choices are categorized by boot leg, straight cut, SKINNY, and SUPER SKINNY—and thus will begin one of the many battles against a negative body image. I am well aware that now is the time I must do everything I can to prepare myself for how we will navigate this superficial world. The question of how I will help her grow up in a culture that is saturated with unhealthy and unrealistic expectations about how she should appear from now until forever . . . feels daunting.
Not only in my role as a social worker but now also as a mother, I arm myself with knowledge: A negative body image generally develops during the pre-teen years as a result of the rapid physical changes that occur during puberty and the increased awareness of these changes in one’s self and peers. During the process of physical maturation, a child may gain up to 20 pounds. This is perfectly normal, of course, but most adolescents are overwhelmed by the signifiant transformation that their bodies go through. For the child who does not receive adequate information well before their impending physical changes, it can be even more terrifying, leaving boys and girls to wonder, What is happening to my body? And of course question, Am I normal? (This is where things get compounded—when a child feels overwhelmed by his or her changing body while being affected by the media’s distorted influence.) Children today are reaching the same developmental milestones as previous generations at an accelerated pace. (Some girls and boys are going through puberty as young as eight years old. Research suggests this may be due to obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and exposure to chemicals in our food.) They are also exposed to much more information (which they are not mature enough to fully comprehend) than were previous generations. The media feeds into this problem by showcasing unrealistic images of ultra-thin, flawlessly airbrushed models in advertisements and on the covers of magazines, using sex appeal to sell their wares.
Within our homes, dolls like Barbie, Bratz, and Monster High are manufactured with unrealistic body dimensions and are often part of a little girl’s toy chest. TV shows like Toddlers and Tiaras (which is now alarmingly in it’s sixth season!) have given us an up-close look at the insanity of spray-tanning toddlers, putting false eye lashes on them, waxing off excess hair, and judging them by ridiculous “beauty standards.” With all of this focus on beauty and sex appeal, it’s no wonder that 80 percent of ten-year-olds have a fear of becoming fat.
Alarmingly, by the time a girl is seventeen years old, she has viewed more than 250,000 messages from the media about what the ideal woman looks like . . . and how she should conform to achieve this ideal.
Media aside, one of the most damaging contributors to negative body image are the messages children hear from their own family, friends, and/or teachers. For example, when I took Maya to her gymnastics class recently, I overheard a group of moms chatting about their daughters’ bodies: “I would have killed for such long lean legs like hers!” said one woman, referring to her four-year-old’s legs. Another chimed in: “Look at that tush! She is gonna have quite the bubble butt someday!” Meanwhile, their daughters were standing only a few feet away. I sat back in fury. These comments are a total reflection of their own body insecurities—which they are now laying the groundwork to pass on to their daughters. Now is the time to be their cheerleader: to support and encourage her to run, jump, tumble, and embrace her strength to gain a sense of pride in what she can accomplish. While I don‘t know if their daughters could hear their comments about their lean legs or bubble butt, I do know that all of our daughters are watching us (mothers, sisters, teachers, coaches, aunts, grandmothers), and if we can’t model body satisfaction in our words and actions, then how can we expect our daughters to ever feel proud of the way they look?
As a social worker who often works with teens, one of my thirteen-year-old students recently shared that her mother commented that she looked “slutty” because she didn’t approve of her outfit. Countless other girls with whom I have worked have told me about the comments their parents make, comments like: You look too fat for that outfit, Are you sure you want to eat that? You would look so much better if you dropped just a few pounds. These scripts leave lasting impressions that cause girls—or do I say us—to develop negative associations with food as well as feelings of shame and guilt when we do eat.
What do I suggest? While there’s no magic bullet to ward off these concerns, a good place to start is with a mantra that can help us through life’s challenges—particularly around issues related to body image. Giving our girls a simple mantra from a young age can help them to recognize that they are more than what we see on the outside. A simple mantra we can say to our daughters is “You are strong. You are wise. You can be anything you want to be.” I say this often to Maya.
It’s true that we live in a superficial world. Our children will continue to face conflicting messages about how they look and how society expects them to look. Fortunately, in the Jewish tradition, we can find solace in the value of tzinut, or modesty; it provides guidance not only in how we dress, but also the way in which we conduct ourselves in what we say (also known as humility). This value reminds us that looking good is important, but “looks” are not the whole picture. In a recent blog post by the website Beauty Redefined, the author writes, “When we live ‘to be looked at,’ self-conscious of our bodies, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what we can to really bring happiness.” What the author is saying is that when a girl’s appearance becomes her sole focus, she will neglect to fully embrace the things that can bring authentic happiness, such as hobbies and other self-esteem-enhancing activities like sports and music.
Beauty Redefined goes on to say, “Research shows a level of modesty can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves and our daughters from being in a constant state of self-objectification.” There is merit in those words. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we take modesty to an extreme and cover our bodies from head to toe, but I am suggesting that we start to look at our bodies as a whole and talk to our daughters about the qualities that make them who they are from the inside out.
I suggest that when interacting with young children, rather than complimenting them on their clothing or haircut or some physical feature, you ask about their favorite hobbies or what they aspire to be when they grow up. Ask them to show you how high they can jump or how fast they can run. Take time to compliment their strength and achievements rather than just how “cute” they look. Putting a focus on physical traits that have nothing to do with their body image sets the foundation for them to feel a sense of pride over what their bodies are capable of doing, rather than what they are showcasing.
We may not be able to control what our children view in clothing stores, the toys they play with at other children’s homes, or the music they hear from living in this world. But we can control the values we want to impart in our homes. Developing a positive body image is a concept we have to work really hard to teach our children because it is learned; it isn’t something that’s hard-wired in our brains, unfortunately. Therefore, we need to be hypervigilant about how we communicate messages regarding appearance and expectations about beauty ideals to our children.
Here are some recommendations to foster healthy growth and body satisfaction in our daughters:
- Encourage your daughter to get super messy from head to toe. Once she is covered in mud, paint, or grease, tell her she is beautiful so she recognizes beauty is something we are on the inside and outside.
- Talk about all the things your body can do with your daughter, focusing on its strength and movement. Express gratitude for being able to achieve all the physical things (walking, carrying, lifting, running) you do in a day.
- Encourage your daughter to have a diversity of friends. (Studies suggest having at least five good friends your child can trust enhances his or her own self-worth and satisfaction.)
- Watch your words and comments about your own body image. Your daughter needs the best role models possible, so be mindful of using words related to fat, diet, skinny, and thin.
- Focus on words that describe your daughter’s and other people’s characters like “strong,” “assertive,” and “confidant.”
- Support your daughter in her extracurricular activities. Research states that the more children get involved with sports and specific hobbies combined with the support of many caring adults, they are more likely to feel happier, which all leads to developing strong self-esteem.
- Teach your daughter a wide range of emotional words to express how she is feeling. Sometimes we confuse feeling hungry with other emotions like loneliness, boredom, or even happiness, which can lead to emotional eating, rather than eating for health. Talk to your child about what each of these words means and ask questions like “Are you hungry or are you feeling bored and looking for something to do?”
- Be sure to discuss your views with other adult role models in your daughter’s life so she can hear these messages from more than one source. While you are the most influential person in her life, it’s always important for children to hear positive message from the other people they admire.
- Teach your daughter about healthy versus unhealthy foods (rather than putting the focus on avoiding fat and calories or good and bad foods). For example, did you know that colorful fruits and vegetables have all different kinds of special nutrients that keep us healthy? This helps her to learn to make choices based on health and well-being. Having a large bowl of fruit on your kitchen table and cut-up vegetable sticks readily available is always a great way to have healthy snacks as a first option.
- Teach your daughter about how computer programs such as Photoshop can manipulate the photographs of models to make them look flawless and explain that these images are unrealistic.
- When your daughter is young, buy clothing that allows for movement and play so it does not constrict her ability to explore the world. When your daughter gets older, talk about how her clothing style should match her personality from the inside out and not the other way around. In other words, her “personality and style” should match the clothes she wears and how she would like to present herself to the world.
- Be aware of how companies brand and manipulate our perception of body image with labels like “super skinny” or dolls with anatomically impossible measurements and become a critical consumer. Learn to study toys and dolls just as you would analyze a nutrition label for the foods we consume. When a toy appears unhealthy, talk about what makes this unrealistic and disproportional. It’s not about banning toys and dolls, just educating our children to begin recognizing the difference from realistic shapes and sizes versus unhealthy and out of proportion.
- Going through puberty can be a roller coaster of emotional, social and physical changes. Be sure to talk to children about these changes well before they begin. Prepare your daughter for her impending growth spurt, increased weight gain and hearty appetite that accompanies puberty.
My daughter will eventually know there is an option to wear skinny or super-skinny jeans. This is unfortunate because there is no reason any child should ever have to choose a pair of pants based on whether she is skinny or super skinny or neither. In case you were wondering, I did not leave the GAP that day, boycotting their clothing because of the labels. However, I did walk away from the jeans section, deciding to cross that bridge when Maya specifically asks to wear jeans. For now, she is happy in her yoga pants, which she says are the best because in her words: “I can stretch and grow!” This is exactly what she should be focusing on: what her body is capable of doing! I intend to help her maintain this focus as we encounter the challenges ahead, and through my workshops as a social worker, I will continue to help parents and their children recognize that a positive body image involves not only feeling proud of our own unique body, but also recognizing that our character and self-worth are not solely defined by the way we appear to others.