I don’t know at what exact moment it all changed. But I remember in third grade when I stood in front of the gold trimmed, full length mirror in the corner of my room and made an assessment that I would carry with me for decades: My thighs were large.
A week or so earlier I begged my mom to buy me a pair of super stylish pink “pleather” pants. Now, you’d call them vegan leather. They were the height of fashion (it was the 1980s) and they were hot. (Temperature wise – pleather does not breathe. At all.)
But, once I got those pants home and tried them on, I no longer felt like a fashion star. Quite the opposite in fact. I felt fat.
About this same time, I also became more aware of the shapes of the girls and women around me. Several of my girlfriends were built like me, but a few stood tall and slim. I envied them. Their legs seemed to run so effortlessly and the gait of their walk was as graceful as a ballerina. I didn’t know what “thigh gap” was in 1983, but having legs that didn’t touch in the middle seemed desirable, even then.
I waged battle with my thighs for the next few decades. Through school, careers, and even four full-term pregnancies. And, though God has taken me pretty far on this journey to overcome my own body image struggles, some days I still look down and grip as much thigh flesh as I can fit into one hand and I think, “If I could just get rid of all this…then I’d be happy.”
When I was a child, models still ate meals, television stars could wear a size six and look normal, and computers were only for government agencies. The only other girls I could really compare myself to were those in my class, in my town, and on the Cosby Show or Growing Pains.
Things are different now.
Even though I work hard to protect my daughter from images on the iPad, we pass several leopard print bikini-clad women on billboards every time we drive into the city. Though I’m choosy with what we watch on television, the model in the cosmetics commercial or the advertisement for the Victoria’s Secret fashion show will frequently catch me off guard, and I watch my daughter’s eyes take it all in (as I scramble to find the remote). I struggle with how much to say on the topic. Is she picking up their messages? Is she comparing herself to those images, already? Or is she just watching intently because she’s anxious for the Voice to come back on?
At seven years old, my daughter’s biggest problem with mirrors is becoming so transfixed–smiling at herself– that she struggles to finish brushing her teeth. But according to the data, girls as young as age six start questioning their appearance and begin to battle their body image. Moms at MOPS meetings I’ve been speaking to this year have confirmed this.
The number one question I get when I go anywhere is this: How do I help my daughter with her body image?
When I give the answer, I’ll be honest. Moms are often unsatisfied. They’d rather have an easy list of things they could do, like not using the word “diet” or helping her exercise. But, it’s deeper than that.
You see, I think we need to get the issue right in our hearts first.
The absolute best thing I can do for my daughter on the body image front is to get my own relationships with food, beauty, diets and exercise in order. I have to know in my heart that my appearance doesn’t define me before I ever expect her to believe that the same is true for her. I know I can feed her a steady stream of cliches about how God made her beautiful and it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but they’ll all fall flat–just like they did on me all those years ago—unless her identity is securely rooted somewhere other than in her appearance.
Those messages out there, the ones our girls are hearing about needing to be beautiful to have a boyfriend or to fit in, they are loud. So, so loud. We can’t simply dismiss them. Nor, can we pay lip service to their lack of value with our mouths while doing something different with our actions. We need a better answer than, “Oh, don’t worry about that dear. You are fine.”
So, Mom, if you really want to help your daughter with her body image, I’d encourage you to look at these four areas:
1) Look in the Mirror.
Ask yourself: How do I feel about beauty? Where do I believe my value is found? How do I handle diet and exercise? Telling her that her body size is not important while fretting over yours is not going to be effective. What do you need to do to change your beliefs about your value in relation to the way you look? Are you always on a diet or chasing the latest exercise fad? Can I encourage you to take an honest look at what you believe first?
2) Look at Your Labels.
Are you the mom who always captions your daughter’s photo with “My Beauty?” Is it really important to you that you affirm your daughter’s physical appearance, often? In some ways, we all need to know our moms find us beautiful Yes! But, can I encourage you, fellow Mom, that no amount of compliment showering from you (or anyone else) will change an already distorted body image. Yes, you and her daddy need tell her she’s lovely and accepted, just as she is. But, there is a certain hollow nature to our compliments that sometimes leaves them powerless. We don shallow labels on our children, then when someone contradicts them, they’re left deflated and confused.
Want a daughter who doesn’t worry about her body image? Then, fill her with praise for attributes that are eternally meaningful. Let her know that her worth and her value aren’t derived from looking pretty in a dress but from the way she loves others or how she uses her talents for Christ. The world will tell her she needs to be pretty to be something. Tell her she’s something important in Christ whether she’s pretty or not.
3) Look at Your Media.
Growing up, every night at 7:30pm we watched Entertainment Tonight. Each weekday evening I saw images of glamorous celebrities and heard about their dating relationships, their diets, and their happiness. Being beautiful like them seemed like a noble pursuit. I believe that if my mom had thought, even for one second, that those images had an affect on me, she would have never watched that show. Now, I know people who watch the Bachelor with their young daughters. They buy their girls fashion magazines or read through People. Mom, please realize the harm this does. If you prioritize beauty and image, she will too. If these are the women that you idolize because of how they look, guess who will idolize them right along with you?
As your daughter goes through phases of questioning her body and her value, replace these vain and shallow pursuits with more noble ones. Let her know that her greatest goal in life should be something far more awesome than looking good enough in a bikini to get the final rose. Don’t allow the media you let into your house preach your daughter a contradictory message. Psalms 119:37 says, “Turn my eyes from worthless things, give me life in your ways.” Our media sucks the life out of us and our offspring. Watch it carefully.
4) Look at Your Metrics.
When your daughter tells you she’s fat or ugly, check her metrics. Metrics simply means the standards by which one measures something. Explain this to her and ask her, “Compared to Who?” This should facilitate a great discussion about why comparison can be so difficult and deceptive. And, how comparison is a game that no one can win because there will always be someone “more” and always someone “less.” Ask her who she wants to be like, and why? Then use this time to have Gospel-centered conversations about what Jesus’ standards are and what kind of metrics God uses when he looks at us.
What do you think? Are there areas in your life you have had to change in order to help your daughter in this arena?