I was recently at a workshop for girls on body image sponsored by Dove at the Mom 2.0 Summit. It was part of Dove's "Unstoppable Girls" campaign, which is an effort to deal with the fact that 6 out 10 girls stop doing something they love (swimming, dancing, etc.) because they feel self-conscious about their body. In this workshop, led by Jess Weiner, the global ambassador for Dove, 20 or so tween girls talked about what messages they receive around body beauty from the women in their lives--moms, aunts, older sisters, etc. They were asked to write down what these family members say and then share with the rest of us. Almost all of them focused on their moms, not surprisingly, reporting:
"My mom always complains that she's fat. I ask her if she wants me to jog with her but she doesn't ever want to do it."
"My mom says she hates her hips."
"My mom complains that she can't fit into her clothes."
And maybe the most heartbreaking of all: "My mom says she misses her old body." The young girl who said this got quiet as she explained, "Basically, I'm the reason she doesn't like her body." (It was all I could do to not burst into tears.)
When the girls were asked how they respond to these statements from mom, they admitted over and over "it makes me sad" and that they try to come up with solutions:
"I tell my mom she is beautiful all the time."
"I try to give her ways she can get healthier."
"I give her suggestions about exercises she can do."
These girls should not be trying to fix their mothers' sadness and body shame. That's the job of mom. The girls in that room saw their mothers as beautiful--inside and out--and hated that their mothers couldn't see or feel that. How can we expect a girl to feel good about her own body if her biggest influence is going around talking about fat thighs, big hips, skinny calves, and so on?
I tell you this so you can do a check-in of what messages you're sending to your own daughter(s). I don't just mean the overt ones either ("I hate my hips," "These jeans make me look so big," "Take care of your body so you don't end up with one like mine") but the non-verbal ones. What expression do you wear when you catch your reflection in the mirror? When you receive a compliment about how you look, do you say "thank you" or deny it by saying, "Oh, I look awful" or "That's sweet of you to say, but I need to lose 10 pounds."
You better believe your girl is picking up every obvious and subtle message you send, and that her ideas about her appearance are being shaped right now by you. So for your sake--and for your daughter's sake--please start to focus on what's beautiful about yourself and let her know that you see it. I am trying to do the same. I told my daughter this week that I love my strong legs, and she smiled and told me she loves her strong arms. I know she worries other body parts; I intend to keep this up.
When you share with your daughter that you love your curvy belly, thick eyebrows, or hips that helped bring her into this world, she may smile or she may roll her eyes. Either way, I promise you she's going to soak it in and love hearing you say it.
I am a journalist, filmmaker, author, wife, and mom to an 8-year-old daughter. My most recent project is I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms. Other projects explore raising only children, happily ever after, raising strong girls, and hot topics for Jewish women.
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