If you were fortunate enough to have female role models in your life who made you feel strong and capable, as I did, you should count your lucky stars. The fact is, most of our mother figures did their very best to make us feel beautiful and important, as they should have. But, did they feel the same about themselves? For generations, women have struggled with body image issues and low self confidence, and our moms were no different.
Fast forward twenty to thirty years. Now we are moms. And some of us have daughters. Gulp. Daughters who will grow up in a world of body shaming, social media comparisons, and hundreds of subtle messages that whisper, “You’ll never be good enough” in their ears all day. Their generation will be the generation that doesn’t back down, doesn’t take anyone’s shit, and changes the freaking world. But that doesn’t mean they still won’t struggle with the negative little voices in their own heads reminding them constantly that their thighs touch and their skin doesn’t glow and they don’t have six pack abs.
How can we equip our, now little, girls with the tools they’ll need to be ultra confident grown women? How can we stop the cycle? What if we struggle with our own self confidence and we don’t want to pass these issues and burdens down to them? The answer is so complicated.
What comes to mind first for me is the ol’ fake it ’til you make it strategy. Exude confidence even when you’re not feeling it. Never criticize your body in front of her. “Pretend” that your issues don’t exist, that you are completely comfortable in your own skin, and that she should be too.
Eh, okay, there are pros to this strategy. But there are also cons. Pro: She doesn’t see or hear her role model putting herself down, so maybe she never develops this yucky habit herself. Con: If she does ever question her own attractiveness or worth, she may feel like something is wrong with her. She also may not come to us because she won’t want to look weak. One of the saddest thoughts, for me, is the idea that someday my Avery will be confused or depressed about something … and she WON’T come to me, her mom. I would just hate that.
There are a few thoughts on the subject that are generally universally agreed upon. These are things like the puberty talk, or sex talk. I think we all know that even if it’s super weird or uncomfortable, someday we are going to have to look into our sweet girl’s eyes and explain that she will someday bleed from her privates, have horrendous uncontrollable mood swings, and have to wear these uncomfortable body part containment devices called bras. Bonus, we also get to explain to her what a penis is and how that all works. Let’s be honest, as a kid weren’t we all like, “Wait, what goes where?” And, “A baby will come out of what?” It’s terrifying.
The other important topic to discuss is consent. We have to talk to them about clearly saying no, and sticking to their guns. We want our girls to know that it is more than okay to say no, and that no one should be able to talk her into anything she isn’t comfortable with. Also, if he even tries to talk her into it, he’s a jerk and doesn’t deserve her. This “boys will be boys” idea is old news. As a woman she can, and should, demand respect.
Okay, those are kind of the basics. But in this day and age, there are some other conversations worth having. Firstly, our daughters, and sons for that matter, need to understand that there are many different sexual identities and that everyone has the right to be exactly who they are. A friend of mine, a gay man, once told me that he always knew he was more interested in boys, but didn’t even know that there was a name for that, and that it didn’t mean there was something seriously wrong with him. He honestly thought, as a kid, that he was the only male in the entire world to ever feel this way, and that led to some pretty soul crushing loneliness and self doubt.
We need to get with the times and explain that love and relationships look different to everyone, and that as long as it’s based on mutual respect and support, love is love. And we want her to find love and be loved in whatever way feels right to her, or him, if we are talking to our son. We just want our kids to feel like they are never alone. This of course leads to the subject of transgendered folks, and that it’s okay to come to us and ask questions, be completely honest, and be who she is … not who she feels like she “should” be.
Okay, so lots of talks to have. No pressure or anything, but these will sort of shape how she feels and who she becomes. Yikes. Talks are fantastic and so vital to open dialogue in families and relationships. But none of this matters if we don’t model the behaviors for our kids. This means no derogatory slurs towards the LGBTQ community, no body shaming other women, and no questioning others’ life choices. She needs to know that it’s cool to be gay, it’s cool to not want to be a mom or wife, it’s cool to be career oriented, it’s cool to be a stay at home mom, etc. If someone is doing their part to bring more kindness and love and respect to the world, then they’re doing it right. Period.
That part seems easy enough and pretty common sense. But we also have to dig deeper and get to the root of it all by redefining the word “beautiful”. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word? A female celebrity? An attractive woman you know? A model? Good hair and skin? Low body fat? Damn. No wonder we hate ourselves. We have to change our mentality so that she sees “beautiful” in a totally different light.
Let’s associate beautiful with sunsets, artwork, kindness, confidence, intelligence, and bravery. Let’s point it out when we see it. Example: “Avery I love that your new friend has chosen to have purple hair because she is not afraid to be herself and that’s beautiful.” Also, “Wow, look at that painting. The artist has a really beautiful way of looking at things, doesn’t she?” It is insane to think that beautiful can only be associated with physical appearance. It’s really great to compliment another woman’s physical appearance, but can’t we also try to call attention to more “unconventional” beauty? It will broaden the scope of the word for our girls.
Also, let’s compliment our own kids on more than their looks. I get it, when you take them to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the first they’re going to do is mention how cute their grandchild is. And you agree. Your kid is the cutest kid that ever lived. Those sweet compliments are valid and nice, but we also need to make sure we are saying things like, “Wow you are so kind!” And, “I just love how smart you are,” or, “I am so impressed with your bravery.” Hopefully, this will ensure that our girls grow up with the knowledge that all that she is and all that she will ever be is NOT wrapped up in how she looks. Make sure to let her know that being brave or kind or smart holds way more weight than being pretty. And it always will.
Lastly, let’s stop asking what they want to be when they grow up. Let’s instead ask how they plan to make the world better or what they think their contribution might be. We need less people clocking in and out for a paycheck every day and more people chasing dreams and feeling passionate about what they do. Studies show that females do a lot less of this than men, and that sucks. She shouldn’t settle ever. Not with her job, partner, anything.
Look, I don’t have all the answers. I’m just a 32 year old first time mom who is trying to figure this out one day at a time like everyone else. Momming is hard. It’s tough knowing that all of the decisions you make will shape them, and you just want to get it right. It becomes your first priority in life to raise a happy, healthy, confident individual who knows her worth and doesn’t get pushed around. Because let’s face it, this world does a lot more pushing around when it comes to women. But we are warriors. We are strong and resilient. We always have been.
But, if I’m speaking honestly here, sometimes this strong warrior feels the need to be smaller, thinner, younger, bouncier, firmer, more attractive, and more likeable. And my dream is that my baby girl will never know that agony, and that she will always build herself and others up, and that we can cut out all of this self negativity.