Images are so powerful as they can inspire us to imagine potential. This is why my presentations include a plethora of pictures. I show audiences all kinds of girls: different ages, ethnicities and expressions—so they can embrace the message that girls are unique—beautiful, valuable and enough—just as they are, no changes required.
Girls at younger and younger ages watch us; and they emulate what they see. They are learning to poke and prod their bodies and focus on their perceived flaws. When girls are little, they love themselves so much—they feel beautiful, normal, healthy, whole and more than enough. They embrace their chubby thighs, tiny fingers and toes and rounded tummies. Why? Because they have yet to be taught any other way. They are just so happy and excited to explore what’s around them and feel loved. It’s heart-breaking the day we see her look in the mirror and tell her beautiful body that she is “too fat.”
How do we—who have been trained by body negative cultural messaging—teach girls to be body positive? How do we compete with the messages she sees every day showing her unrealistic and unhealthy body standards? It may seem like an impossible task. I have worked with girls a long time and I know they want to feel good about their bodies but they don’t always know how. Here are some ideas to get started on guiding her towards body appreciation, starting with you.
Teach body confidence.
Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist and in her 2012 TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are”, she asserts that high power poses – open and expansive, tall, head up and chin out, shoulders back—looking strong and poised, affect our thoughts, feeling and physiology. This is not just about posing like a super hero but feeling like one too while influencing body chemistry—lowering cortisol (the stress hormone) and raising testosterone (the dominance hormone).
Together, you and your daughter can practice standing like super heroes for only two minutes—to create self-belief and that “I can do anything” feeling! Try this before she has a test or presentation or perhaps a difficult conversation with a friend, so she can feel assertive, confident and brave enough to take a risk. As Cuddy says, “Fake it ‘til you become it.”
Focus on feeling, not appearance.
We all do it as an easy way to connect. We compliment what she looks like: her outfit, her hair and her choice of accessories. As we highlight the superficial, she learns this to be her true value. In other words she internalizes that what she looks like matters most and she may feel your love is contingent on her appearance.
Instead of complimenting her outer beauty, try complimenting her competence. “I see how hard you are working—I love your grit and determination”. This way, she learns to embody her core qualities: her power over her prettiness. When she asks you, “How do I look”, you can ask her, “How do you feel?” And when she’s with her friends, remind her to focus on their personality, not their attire. She could have great influence in her peer group as she shows them how to choose meaningful compliments over the social norm of criticism.
Help her choose connection, over disconnection.
When something, anything really, goes wrong in our lives, it’s easy to turn on our bodies. Our bodies are accessible and all too easy to become the target of our hyper-focus. Girls may think, “If I look sexy, then I’ll get more followers on Instagram and then I’ll feel good about myself!” The trap of this logic is that turning on our bodies—not accepting what we look like, is disconnection, and may leave us feeling alone and lonely.
Talk to her about connecting, especially on days she feels stressed, tired and not so good about herself. Connection is self care and she can show herself the love and self-compassion she needs to be the healthiest version of herself by drinking enough water, eating whole and healthy foods, getting adequate sleep, moving her body to generate those feel good hormones and avoiding her social media accounts (at least for a minute!). Remember, the relationship she has with herself needs nurture to grow and we can remind her how it’s done.
Limit mirror time.
We don’t want her clothes to be worn inside out and backwards, nor do we want her to leave the house with toothpaste smeared across her face. She needs the mirror. Yet, she doesn’t need to be trapped in the mirror or get into the habit of body shaming. She should not waste her time looking for flaws or honing in on body parts she’s learned are “imperfect.”
When she is looking in the mirror, help her focus on the body parts she loves. “I love the way my legs are long and athletic.” And then, encourage her to do other things: there is so much more than body image. She can play outside, create a craft, bake, cook, do a science experiment, create a collage of photos, or play a sport. She can do it all, no perfect shape or size required. Teach her to care a little less about looking and a little more about living and remember to watch your words when you see your reflection.
Whatever her age or stage, it is never too late to help her love her body, as it’s never too late for you to love yours! She needs to know she is beautiful, valuable, and enough—as are you!