I’m not an expert. My daughter’s a baby and whether she’ll turn out to have a positive body image is yet to be seen. But, I’ve learned a few things about the challenge of nurturing a positive body image over the past two and a half decades from growing up as a girl in our weight-obsessed culture, watching my mother thoughtfully and intentionally raise me, and as a ballet teacher seeing even very young girls struggle with the cultural messages of body image constantly before them. Here’s my two cents:
Love Your Body: If you want your daughter to grow up confidently loving her body you will have to model this behavior for her. Dissatisfied looks and critical statements when you look in the mirror will not go unnoticed by her. Constantly complaining about weight and your plans for dieting will affect how she views her own body. This is a tall order. I know that I don’t always look in the mirror and have lots of positive thoughts. I see things I think are flaws and wish I looked different. But I never see room for improvement when I look at my baby girl—she is absolutely perfect in my eyes. She is a precious little body and soul beloved by her family and by her Heavenly Father. And if I want her to see herself that way I have to remember that I, too, am made in the image of God and that He looks at me, his creation, with tender affection. If I want my daughter to be confident and at peace with her body, I must show her how.
Eat as a Family: I know there might be overwhelming demands on your time in the evening with extracurriculars to attend and family members moving in a thousand different directions. Eating a leisurely meal together on a regular basis might feel impossible. Change this and make time to eat as a family. By eating dinner together and enjoying each other’s company, you are impressing upon your daughter that partaking of food is a positive experience. It’s not just calories in your mouth, it’s a MEAL. Over the dinner table you connect with your kids and spouse. I’ve read several times that the occurrence of eating disorders in preteen and teenage girls decreases dramatically when their family regularly eats dinner together.
Cook as a Family: Take the family togetherness a step further. Cook together. Now you’re not just opening up a packaged meal with a label explaining how many grams of this or that is contained within. You’re creating culinary art together! Food isn’t just sustenance, it is a delight. And you’re also providing your kids with skills they can take beyond your kitchen. When they move out, they can take positive eating habits with them!
Grow a Garden: OK, so now you’re cooking together. Great. Now, start a garden in your yard. Begin with just herbs if you’re overwhelmed! Fresh herbs are easy to grow and so fun to use in recipes. Grow some veggies in a little raised bed and let your children be involved in every step. Then food isn’t just associated with sustenance and positive family experiences, but it takes on an entirely new role: the bounty of nature, God’s creation. Watching plants grow is exciting to children! My 3-year-old will run inside to tell me that the tomatoes “ARE TURNING RED! And RED MEANS RIPE!” Then we will go out so he can pick them off our tomato plants and he will devour a juicy, sun-ripened tomato that HE GREW. Often before cooking begins, he will participate in harvesting what we need for our meal. He sees us prepare it and then we sit down to eat it. Food becomes downright miraculous!
Tell Her That She Is Beautiful: She needs to hear this from you and, perhaps more importantly, from her father. She must know that you think she is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. And start using the word “beautiful” to mean more than physically attractive. Say, “that was a beautiful thing to do,” when she acts kindly. Note that a woman you admire is a “lovely person.” Help her expand her idea of beauty from what our culture says it is (sexually attractive) to include: virtuous, feminine, courageous, self-sacrificial, loving.
Tell Her She Is More than Beautiful: Note and praise her other attributes. Mention that you think she’s clever, interesting, determined, kind, fun, delightful, talented, etc. Don’t allow her identity to be limited to her physical appearance. Nurture in her the understanding that her identity rests in her status as God’s child—so beloved that Our Lord sacrificed himself for her.
Be Honest With Her: When we as mothers fall short of #1 (confidently loving our bodies) we should offer those experiences to our daughters to learn from. It was incredibly helpful to me to hear about my mother’s struggles with healthy body image as a college student. She was very open with me about her bouts with anorexia. She explained what pressures caused her to harm her body by not eating, her need for control over her weight, the dangers of her behavior, and her road to recovery. This provided me with the ability to see red flags in my own thought patterns when pressures arose in my life and environment. When, knowing intellectually that I was at a healthy weight, I looked in the mirror and didn’t see a thin girl, I remembered her explanation of how our minds can get sick and our perspective warped so that we can no longer see reality and, instead, become obsessed with being thin. I was able to stop those negative thought patterns in their tracks because of the honest conversations my mother offered me.
Discuss Cultural Messages of Beauty: Another awesome thing my mother did to guide my way to healthy body image was to point out positive and negatives messages in advertising, toys, movies, etc. For example, although my mom never bought me a Barbie doll, she didn’t ban them from the house when they were gifted to me by others. Instead, we talked about them. She noted the length of the Barbie’s legs and her tiny waist in proportion to the rest of her. “Have you ever seen anyone who looks like that?” she asked. No, I hadn’t. “That’s right. This isn’t what women really look like, is it?” she explained. “Do you think the people who made this doll want us to think she’s pretty? How do you think a girl would feel if she thought she was supposed to look like Barbie since no one really looks that way? Do you think she might feel bad about how she looks—how women are really made to look–since she can’t ever look like that doll?” Open a dialogue. Teach your daughter to question the subtle messages that are being presented to her. Teach her to distinguish between lies and the truth about her body. Expand her views of what beauty is beyond the narrow box of the runway model.
Don’t Watch Commercials: When I see a commercial for makeup or clothes or razors or whatnot presenting skinny models as the epitome of beauty that I should be seeking to imitate, I know it influences my thoughts. I’ve got almost 3 decades under my belt of learning to fight those messages. How much more dangerous are those messages to a young girl who hasn’t yet learned to see the lies presented in commercials for what they are! Your daughter will be receiving negative messages about her body every time she steps out of the house. Don’t let those messages invade her household as well.
Provide Her With Positive Role Models: There will come a time when she will struggle with these issues, so give her some good company for her journey. I grew up with my head full of wonderful characters like Anne of Green Gables. I watched Anne struggle with her body: she felt ugly and wished she was pretty like her best friend Diana. “Why doesn’t Anne like herself? Anne is SO COOL!” I would think. Then I watched Anne grow up to be a confident, amazing woman during Montgomery’s wonderful series. These sorts of tales served me well when I felt awkward or ugly as a girl and compared myself to friends I thought were prettier. Anne was in it with me. I wasn’t alone and I wanted to be as confident, clever, funny, and kind as Anne. Because after all…who wants to be boring and pretty Diana when you can be amazing and exciting ANNE?! Here’s my list of the 10 Books You Must Read to Your Daughter that might help you get started. And even more importantly, give her the wonderful gift that Our Lord gave to us when he was on the Cross: the Blessed Virgin Mary as her mother. Pray that Our Lady will be her model and guide. For who is more truly beautiful than the Mother of Our Lord?
Do you have anything to add? How do you nurture positive body image for your children?
This is a great post. I don’t have children yet but, being a woman, I understand what it is like to struggle with a negative body image. I absolutely agree that a mother’s body confidence has a huge influence on how her daughter feels about her own body. Your daughter is very lucky to have you!
What an encouraging comment! Thank you!
can you please be my mother? just kidding! I love my mama, but these are great truths (that also apply a fair amount to sons as well). I am looking forward to watching your sweet girl grow and flourish under these precepts 🙂
I think you’re right, Tryna, that most can apply to boys as well. Although they might not experience pressure to look a certain way as strongly as girls do, how food and our bodies are viewed are important issues for boys, too.
Jerrie Hayley Klenk says
Sons do suffer from self image, just as much as girls do. On this I am sure, I raised two sons and they look in the mirror and are just as critical as girls are of their appearance.
I love this entry. Beautiful, thoughtful, and apt. Being good mothers to daughters is such an incredible and important task. Thanks for working to make the world a safe place for MY daughters (whenever they should decide to make their appearances). Love you.
Love you, Eleanor! The world is ready for some Triplett girls to watch Anne and Fiddler on the Roof with the Stewart gals.
Margot Payne says
This post is one of the most thoughtful entries you have ever written. My prayer is that your words will positively influence girls, women, mothers, daughters of all ages. For indeed, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made!”
None is perfect but Christ: He alone holds perfection. Praise His Name!
Love you, mama. You should take some credit since I learned most of it from you 🙂
Very well done. i love just the way you are.
Mary Susan says
Love, love, love this. Thank you! I especially love the idea of using “beautiful” to be more than just appearance oriented. I’ll be putting that into practice, for sure.
Wonderful post! Very thoughtful and attentive to realities which require our attention. I’m a guy, and though not a father, I have had many occasions – as a practicing young Catholic – to lament the formation of the minds and hearts of young women in western culture. Which has often led to long periods of reflection upon the nature of parenting, and numerous “mental notes” about this or that aspect of raiding a daughter. I know theory pales in comparison to the reality, so I ask your forgiveness for hoping that reason+imagination might get me close to the point where I may have something useful to contribute.
You’re spot on about Anne of G.G. – I read it for the first time when I was 23 and I quite fell in love the character…I am still waiting to meet my Anne I suppose. :Ahem: RIght. So, you may find it interesting to know that many of the same qualities that make Anne so endearing also belong to the young St. Terese of Lesieux (highly recommend giving your daughter Terese’s diary at some point…it is incredibly inspirational)
In relation to a daughter’s beauty (when it matures…so whatever the age Mary was when she conceived, I guess), I imagined that it would be good to remind my own girl(s) that human beauty is fated to wilt…and that it would probably do great good for a soul to caution her against excessive vanity in light of the reality that ours is a pilgrimage and we can’t hold on too tightly to even the things which God blesses us to have in our own bodies.
So while a girl possesses beauty, it is important, I think, to help her understand that it is a gift she can either give to one man in marriage or to God in consecrated religious life. So basically, beauty can be seen as something with a teleological nature – it has “an end,” and knowing the end to which beauty is directed (it always leads back to God who created it) seems to me like an extremely useful weapon in the parenting battle for a child’s soul. I’ve always thought that the highest esteem a woman can have for her body is to guard it with the virtue of modesty, to be “hidden in God,” in the same way that Maya Angelou describes when she says “A woman should be so hidden in Christ that a man would have to seek Him in order to find her.” Additionally, in light of marriage’s life-long nature, it becomes an important act of charity towards her future husband to dress and act with modesty because it protects the integrity of the gift of (her own beauty and mystery) that she will eventually give to him.
I note the aspect of modesty because I observe in young women – especially those who know they are beautiful – a kind of pride in their bodies and a desire to be acknowledged for it. This seems to arise from a lack of awareness that beauty – all beauty – is derived from God Himself, who is beauty itself. For it is His face we hope to gaze upon at the end of our earthly pilgrimage in the famous phrase “the beatific vision of God.”
Thank you for another great post! As a teen I struggled with issues concerning my body image and my attitude towards food, which were of course connected to darker thoughts on my general worthlessness, on the fact that I would never be pretty, thin, intelligent enough. Knowing that God created me just the way I am, that He loves me and that I am beautiful in His eyes no matter what the world says about my weight or my “success” changed that. The Virgin Mary is indeed a good example: she was nothing according to society’s standards, but she was blessed, beautiful and great in God’s eyes. That is one of the things I love about the Bible: it is full of misfits, people who were not strong enough or beautiful enough, or even “good” enough in wordly standards, but for God they were precious. I now share my experience with adolescent girls and University students, so, as a “surrogate mother”, thank you for giving me words of encouragement for them!
On a slightly different matter, Anne rocks! I read all the series in my late teens and it was love at first perusal! I even started dying my hair red to be more like her! 🙂
Thank you for sharing this, Miriam. So many great points in your comment! It’s wonderful that you are able to share your experience with young women.
My hair is naturally light brown but I dye my hair red on occasion partly in homage to Anne-with-an-e 🙂 I never get tired of re-reading the books and I get all teary-eyed with their wonderful sappiness!
I was moved to tears when I read the conversation between yourself and your mother about Barbie. My mom, looking at a daughter with olive skin who, even at six, was quite plainly destined to be short and round, banned them from our home. But oh…how much more valuable it would have been had we had a conversation like this one!
Yes, I think my mom was very wise. She would never have bought me a Barbie, but I think she handled the situation really well. Because of course if she had forbidden me to keep it, it would only have made me want one even MORE, haha.
I really enjoyed this list, and especially your thoughts about making and enjoying food, appreciating a meal, etc. That’s an insightful approach and makes a lot of sense to me.
Another idea I would add to the mix is to have your daughter trained in sports and dance. Team sports in particular are great, since girls of different body types get together and each contribute something to a group effort (littler girls might be quicker, and maybe heavier girls are more powerful, etc.). I played a lot of soccer and that helped me to appreciate my physique as I entered adolescence, since I had the confidence that even if I was scrawnier than I might have liked, I was also fast and had skills. An early lesson in how looks aren’t everything!
And dance is great in that it helps a girl with coordination and learning how to move with grace and carry herself with poise. Grace will go a long way in helping a girl/teen/woman accept herself and be comfortable in her skin. My sisters and I all did Irish Step Dancing, which is a particularly good one in that all body types can do it and can be good at it and, even in upper levels of competition, it is not expected that the dancer have one certain physique.
Not to mention that these activities will help a young lady be fit!
I totally agree about the sports and dance. I was never very sporty so ballet ended up being my thing and I LOVED it (still do). I do think it made me feel graceful and beautiful and talented during some awkward years. I think there are some pitfalls to the ballet world, though, regarding body image because there is a desired physique that just works better for ballet. I love other forms of dance for which the teensy body type is not the be-all end-all. Love the idea of Irish Step Dancing. I wanted to be the redhead girl in RiverDance when I was little.
Great list! Reminds me of this post “How to talk to Little Girls” which is also about helping little girls see that there is more to aspire to in life than being super-thin! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html (I don’t normally do this, but I think you’ll like it.)
I’ve seen that article and enjoyed it very much! Thank you!
I would add, being a mother of two girls, ages 18 and 24, that you should let your daughter see you naked, or at least close to it. Let them know that this is what a real woman looks like, not the “perfected”, airbrushed images of women and girls seen in advertisements and on TV. I wasn’t proud of my body and have always been 30-50 pounds overweight since they were born, but by gosh, I was going to help them accept their bodies by accepting mine. It was easier to do this since I didn’t have any sons around, but we shared bathroom time when necessary, they learned about where babies came from (and human sexuality) all along the way throughout their childhood, so few mysteries there. It has helped, but by no means have they totally escaped the effects of popular culture and the pressures placed on women for bodily perfection. Best wishes to you!
I think that is a really good point, Anne.
Jamie Jo says
I linked you yesterday in a post I wrote about beauty. I love what you wrote here. I found you through that link up thing, “New Evangelists Monthly”!
Here’s the post if you are interested:
Thank you so much for the link love, Jamie Jo!
I read this after reading Jamie Jo’s post… love it. With 2 new daughters and having grown up in a family that was tremendously focused on appearance, this is a keeper. Thank you!
Thank you so much, Marijanna <3
I’ve recently started reading your blog, and I love it. I’m such a East Coast city girl and I married an Alaskan mountain man with a green-thumbed mum and a strong, hard-working dad. I love reading your posts as you live as cleanly and as well as possible! I have so much to learn…
I loved this post. I don’t have any little ones yet, but this is something I’ll be keeping for the future. My mom made sure my sister and I knew we were beautiful all on our own–no media needed to tell us–and NEVER to listen to that awful voice inside that says “you’re just not pretty/smart/talented/whatever enough”. Now, of course, just as a woman, I fight insecurity often, but I have her encouragement built up in my heart.
And my dad was good about that too when I was little. My parents separated when I was 12, but when we were children, we all went to church together as a family. As my sister, my mom, and I would be ready to get out the door, almost every week my dad would say, “Well, I’m going to church with the three most beautiful girls in the world!” And I know just that small thing was so important. A daddy’s build-up of his daughter will mean so much in her future, even if life gets messed up between them.
Ok sorry, too long! Thank you for your blog–it’s such an example!
Thank you, Laurel! Great insights!
Christina Grace @ The Evangelista says
These are GREAT and I’m totally bookmarking this post for when I have kids some day. 🙂
Thanks, Christina Grace 🙂
Amy Caroline says
AMEN! I just found your blog and am so thrilled with everything I am finding here. God bless you and your beautiful family!
Iris H - Writer.Photographer. says
This is wonderful, Haley! I don’t have kids yet (obviously), but I’m definitely passing this one around.
Stacey D. says
As a woman who battled an eating disorder and very negative body issues for most of my life, I agree wholeheartedly with your post. As a mother of a teen boy, I’d say that this applies to boys as well as girls. My son is incredibly thin and slim and has been most of his life. He has suffered being picked on by schoolmates, as well as having his own grand mother constantly comment on his slim frame (out of love, but still).
We have to remember that what we say about ourselves will impact our children as much as what they see and hear from others. The best way to teach our kids to love themselves is to model that behaviour.
Great insights, Stacey!
I loved your post. It is wonderful that you are thinking about it now. I was far from the best mother, but one thing I did very intentionally with my dear daughter, was try to use specific praise when I talked to her. in fact, I think the term praise conjures images of empty compliments, so let’s call it encouragement. I avoided generic terms we use for girls, like “That was nice” or “You are such a good girl.” I worried that when she did something wrong (that wasn’t “good”) she wouldn’t have a true picture of herself. If I said, “That wasn’t nice,” it would strip her of her positive image of herself. I was intentionally specific: “That was thoughtful” or “kind” or “helpful” or “generous.” Then, when she had a moment when she wasn’t generous with her little brother, she had all these other words to bolster her concept of herself. She knew she could change her behavior and be generous again. I wanted to fill her personal tool box with a plethora of terms as she grew and developed a sense of herself. Also, I wasn’t giving her empty praise. These specific words of encouragement were connected to her actions and her choices, something she had control over. As she grew, I also knew if someone said hurtful things, she had a lot of evidence that she was a wonderful, caring human being to counteract, that hurt. God bless you as you strive to raise caring, faithful young women.
I think that’s a very good point, Mary. We shouldn’t make our kids think they’re valuable only when they’re are acting in a way that merits a compliment. Thanks for sharing your insight!
My mother is know for her beauty, so growing up in the shadow of her and her love for all things pretty was a bit heavy: not mind-blowingly damaging, mind you, but heavy.
With my own daughter, now 2, I want to be careful of how I present the “necessity” of beauty. When she is enthralled by my practice of putting on make-up, I take her on my knee and let her see and feel and try because it intrigues her (only, though, when I’m not frantically rushing because my husband is already sitting in the car). To me, it is important to differentiate between beauty and this mask that I put on to make me feel better and because I feel naked without it. Just to calm my own thoughts, I started telling her that with makeup we become “fancy” not “pretty”, because “pretty” is who you are, not the mask you wear.
I like the distinction between fancy and pretty. I certainly don’t want my daughters to think that they can’t enjoy dressing up or putting on makeup when it’s age appropriate. (Lucy is always DYING to try my lipstick on!) But I think you’re right to point out that if we define wearing makeup as “pretty” then not wearing makeup might be understood by our daughters as negative.
Is there a “like” button for this goodness? I’m definitely going to use this as a reference.
Dax's Grandma says
Last Sunday our associate pastor preached on self image and body image. Isn’t this an awesome scripture?
1 Samuel 16:7 New International Version (NIV)
7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance,but the Lord looks at the heart.”
I would add another one here too………don’t read magazines! My 6 year old daughter and 4 year old son have never once seen me thumb through a magazine in the grocery store check out line and because they have never seen me even look at them, they don’t notice them either. I decided when my daughter was born that I didn’t want her to see our culture’s idea of beauty as the norm. We have only one magazine (a cooking one) that comes to our house too. The longer I can shield her from our cultures pressures, the better off I pray she will be in regards to having a healthy self image and body concept.
Larabeth Miller says
I loved this! There are so many secular posts about encouraging your daughter, but you added some very important fundamental aspects for raising a family!
When looking at commercials on television my husband would always say “If you look like a model and use this product you could look like a model too.” He was trying to point out that commercials are all a lie. A model is made up to look perfect so don’t believe the product claims. I spent time trying to point out that if you value yourself only if you have a boyfriend, you are taking your self worth and putting it in someone else’s control instead of yours.