While exposure to social media, photoshopped celebrities and misproportioned Barbie dolls all may have an influence on how girls develop feelings about their own bodies, the earliest exposure we have to role models, are our mothers and it's a mother that will "probably have the most important influence on a daughter's body image," said Dr. Leslie Sim, Clinical Director of Mayo Clinic's eating disorders program and a child psychologist.
A mother has gone through two of the most difficult stages in life that require coping with body image, being a tween girl and becoming a mother, both of which involve extraordinary physical changes. So it's not surprising that when it comes to raising a daughter, these very personal experiences are something that a mother draws on, consciously or subconsciously, and that may impact her daughter, starting from a very young age.
On the front lines of seeing mothers and daughters shopping together during this delicate period, we see how mothers struggle with how to help their daughter in the best way, and also see the negative effects moms can unknowingly have.
Not long ago, a mother contacted me to complain that our clothing no longer fit her 10-year old daughter. I wanted to learn more about how we could do better to meet the needs of her body type, and so she sent me a photo of her daughter. I was perplexed when I saw a young girl in the photo, that I instantly knew was within our size range, and that we could readily meet her needs for fit. So why was this mother so adamant?
I later learned that the mother had thwarted attempts by our staff to offer the proper fit, insisting that her daughter was a different size than she was, forcing her into smaller sizes and styles that made her uncomfortable. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this girl's body, or the sizing of the clothes, yet this was the message the mother was sending to her daughter, and anyone who would listen.
It made me wonder how each of us, as mothers, might inflict on our daughter the visual image we have of them, rather than allowing them to be who they are? And be happy with that?
Are we inadvertently projecting the feelings we have about our own bodies, when we were a tween or now, as an adult, onto our daughters?
There is lots of online and offline discussion about what parents should and should not say to their daughters to avoid body shaming. Even how a mother treats and refers to her own body can impact how a daughter experiences her own. The pressure on mothers to get it right can feel intense.
Many experts say that there should be zero comments about weight, diets and outward appearances, and not just about your daughter, but about yourself and others. While this seems like a noble goal, clothes shopping without any conversation on how it looks or fits, seems unrealistic and not authentic (and not much fun when you are really excited about something you've tried!) If you pretend that your daughter's body doesn't exist, then that sends a message too. It's not about ignoring her looks. It's about helping her to redefine her own beauty and love herself.
At our fashion photoshoot calls, in which any girl may enter, twenty-four girls in each city are chosen in a random, blind draw, to become the next models for the brand. What happens at this fashion photoshoot, though, is all about a girl defining her own beauty, within a context of an industry that normally dictates the ideal. It is magical to see how a girl blossoms with confidence when she realizes she can do this.
That her beauty is based on more than a certain body size or hair colour, when her photo goes up on the wall. That her body can serve her to do many cool things, like aikido and cartwheels, and that this can inspire others. That her thoughts, and the things she is gifted and passionate about are valued. And that her uniqueness can be expressed in many ways that make her feel proud and happy, including fashion and how she chooses to present herself to the world. We wish we could give every girl an experience like this, that would help drown out the noise that tries to tell her, her legs are too fat, or her body isn't right.
As parents, and the caring community that surrounds a girl as she grows, we can help shift the focus from body as object, to body as subject, with a focus on living active and healthy lives. We can help her understand that beauty alone does not define her worth in the world by valuing the things she does, not just how she appears. We can redefine the standard of beauty by celebrating diversity and stop inflicting punishments for failing to measure up.
During one photoshoot, a young girl turned to me and asked "Do you think my hearing aids will show in the photos?" I noticed for the first time, her hearing aids poking out behind her wavy hair and bright headband, and replied that we'd have the chance to take plenty of photos so that there would be lots of great shots to choose from. And she confidently said, "I hope so, because they are what make me special!"
We can impact girls in a meaningful way by encouraging them to know that being real, and as they are, is the ideal, and facilitate their growth and confidence by giving them the kind of positive experiences that reinforce these values.
These are the conversations we can be having. And then, it's time to be the change we want to see in our girls.
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