My journey to body positivity has felt more dire lately as I raise a teen daughter. Every day I find myself bouncing around these popular talking points trying to figure out how to navigate parenting her in a way that will teach her to value something other than appearance and teach her to love her body no matter its shape. But doing all of this in a world that delivers impossible standards around her is difficult. Some days I feel like I’m holding a ticking bomb and if I don’t get my script and my attitude right I’m going to miss my chance to arm her in the war with social media and the beauty industry.
As I try to employ all of things I’ve been learning about body positivity and self love and spiritual beauty…I’m realizing all of the lessons don’t fit when the world is not changing around us.
For example: You read articles about it all the time…DO NOT TELL A YOUNG GIRL SHE IS PRETTY. Tell her she’s smart, maybe that you like her outfit, compliment her sense of humor or her perseverance or her athleticism. NEVER COMMENT ON HER LOOKS.
But here’s the problem…SHE STILL CARES ABOUT HER LOOKS. Every girl at her school and on TV and on her social media is struggling to look perfect so your daughter STILL WANTS TO BE PRETTY. And while it seems good on paper to not comment on her looks, she hears other parents tell their daughters they are beautiful or she simply knows it’s something she should hear from those who unconditionally love her and so one day she walks out with her new dress ready for your evaluation of her and when you say, “I love that dress!” it falls flat. So you stumble around because you can see her disappointment and you say, “It’s a great shape for you! It’s flattering!” and then you try to change the subject and talk about how proud you are of her for this accolade you bought the dress for and…she looks down and suddenly you realize that while you followed the rules for not commenting on her appearance, you failed in giving her the affirmation she needed.
She wants to hear she’s beautiful. And she trusted YOU to tell her.
I actually talked about this specifically with my daughter recently. (PRO TIP: It is okay to talk to your kids about things you’re struggling with as a parent.) I told her how all of the body-positive articles out there tell us to NOT comment on a girl’s appearance and I asked her what she thought about that. She said that she understood it, obviously, but that it makes her sad to consider that I might never tell her she looks beautiful. Me avoiding discussing her appearance does not make the world around her stop discussing it. And it doesn’t make her stop thinking about it.
I mean…I’m 43 and I know how she feels. I’ve been feeling intense anger lately about the beauty industry and how women my age deal with aging. HERE IS MY UNPOPULAR OPINION: There is little difference in an aging women hating her wrinkles and our teen daughters hating their belly fat. They are both setting unrealistic beauty standards based on what the beauty industry is trying to sell us. Just like average girls won’t have runway-model bodies, average women won’t have Hollywood-smooth aging skin. We all share out these articles about how our girls shouldn’t be dieting, they should care about health, they should be proud of their bodies and care about CHARACTER no matter what their shape and yet…YET…women my age and older are spending tons of money on creams and botox and surgery to look younger and we act like that does not also feed into the SAME SHITTY SYSTEM.
I mean, it’s all fine and good that we try to tell our daughters they’re smart and dedicated and loyal and funny instead of commenting on their beauty…but if we snap at them for taking a photo of us at a bad angle that shows our flabby chin or if we pay for botox to smooth out our wrinkles…then they are learning from our actions.
So…here are some of the guidelines I’ve been loosely trying to follow lately. This is a combo of things that help changing the faulty wiring in MY brain and things that help me with my daughter. And this list is constantly evolving…these are not “rules” they are just guidelines to help in a new war where the enemy’s battlefield strategy keeps changing.
- WE TALK ABOUT IT. It’s okay to tell your daughter, “I want you to love yourself regardless of your appearance but I’m still struggling too and so I don’t know exactly the best way to help you.” My daughter and I talk about apps that you can use to make you skinner (I almost cried knowing kids use those) and YouTubers that try to be “real” and ones that don’t. We talk about how we love Aerie for setting their new “ROLE MODELS” method of advertising. My daughter has thoughts and opinions too and I learn from her often.
- I LOUDLY PROCLAIM MY OWN BEAUTY. Your daughter hearing that you love your flabby wrinkly self will work magic. If mine sees me evaluating an outfit in the mirror I’ll say something silly like, “Damn…I LOOK GOOD.”
- I DO NOT CRITICIZE MY APPEARANCE. I don’t mean, “I don’t let my daughter hear me criticize myself.” Because even if I only do it when she’s not around, she will still know I’m doing it. When that voice says, “Uggg. Your face is so saggy,” I get as angry at it as I would if those words were directed at someone I love. Do not let those thoughts linger without combat in your heart.
- I GIVE MY DAUGHTER A VARIETY OF COMPLIMENTS, KEEPING THE ONES ABOUT HER APPEARANCE IN THE MINORITY. After the talk with my daughter we decided I would still tell her she’s beautiful, but that I would try to balance out MORE compliments on her brains and her soul and her heart. She also loves fashion and makeup so specifically commenting on an outfit combo or her excellent highlighting is a good way to comment on appearance without associating it with her body.
- I NEVER EVER TALK ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS ANYMORE. Y’all. This one is the hardest. I’ve been talking about weight loss since I was old enough to understand I wanted to be skinnier. Now, I tried to keep my daughter from hearing me but just like with #3 up there, SHE KNEW. Instead we talk about goal races or I talk about poses I want to learn in yoga. I talk about my sore butt from Buti Sculpt class and I let her hear me get excited about hiking in the woods. I want her to know I do these things…NOT TO LOSE WEIGHT…but to care for myself. I talk about how spending time in the woods helps me if I’m feeling depressed. I talk about how badass I feel when I successfully hold a new bind in yoga. We talk about HEALTH, not WEIGHT. NEVER ABOUT WEIGHT. And I find myself even avoiding these topics when she’s not around because it’s almost like they’re triggering now. If someone else starts to talk about weight loss I change the subject because I am trying SO HARD to reprogram my brain and it’s like quitting smoking…I don’t even want to let myself take a puff off someone else’s cigarette because then the dam will break and the floodwaters will wash away all of the hard work I’ve been doing.
- I TALK FOOD AND EXERCISE IN RELATIONSHIP TO HEALTH AND HAPPINESS. I am often talking about things I do or eat that are to keep me healthy or that help my mood. I compliment my daughter all the time on her discipline in only drinking water and how I try to be like her. I talk about how important it is to find activities/exercise routines that make you HAPPY because then you want to do them. How important it is to find healthy foods that you LIKE but that it’s okay to eat the periodic Oreo egg. I talk about how if I’m not careful about my “sweets” intake it effects my energy levels. I have completely changed the way I talk about food and exercise in my life…it’s only about health and happiness, not about how it affects my appearance or the shape of my body.
- I RARELY CRITICIZE PHOTOS. Now, we all know that some photos are just bad. There’s a whole tabloid industry that makes money off taking hideous pictures of celebrities at the beach when their bodyfat is on the downswing. It’s okay to say, “Ugg. I don’t like that photo.” But I pause and think, “If that was my best friend or my daughter would I criticize it?” And if the answer is, “Yes, that’s a terrible picture FOR ANYONE,” then we’ll reshoot. But if the answer is, “No! Look at her smile! Or her hair!” then I proudly share it out.
It’s just hard, y’all. Maybe you’re trying to reprogram your own brain from a lifetime of shitty messages from TV and the beauty industry and maybe even your family. (My Dad never commented on my weight…THANK GOD.) Or maybe you are trying to keep your daughter from growing up with unrealistic expectations of beauty. Either way it’s a challenge and it’s not always as easy as just “not talking about appearance” when we are all surrounded by social media and television and movies and the beauty industry ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT OUR APPEARANCES.
Let me know if you’ve applied any guidelines in your life or home to start encourage self love regardless of appearance.