What do you do when you hear your daughter telling her doll that she's too fat? In her book “You'd Be So Pretty If...” Dara Chadwick explains that the way you feel about your own body has a profound impact on the way your daughter feels about hers.
Chapter two: It’s a girl! Her body image starts with yours
From the moment her daughter is born, just about every woman is clear on two things — all the ways she hopes her daughter will grow up to be just like her and all the ways she hopes things will be different for her girl. When I think about being a body image “role model” for [my daughter] Faith, I confess I sometimes feel anxious. I’m confident that I can show her how to be smart and organized, how to go after her dreams, how to be a loving mom who takes good care of home, friends, and family. These are all areas where I feel I know my stuff. But show her how to feel great about her body and how it looks?
Not so much.
When Faith was little, I used to read a ton of parenting books and magazines. It was practically an obsession; I was always searching for expert advice on what I needed to do so my baby would grow up healthy and happy. I was always looking for strategies for handling the latest “challenge” of being a mom. Somewhere in the first few months of her life, Faith developed a severe case of colic. Every afternoon, she’d scream for about three hours straight, so much so that I thought I might lose my mind. I frantically searched for strategies to outsmart colic, but there was no surefire cure. On one especially trying afternoon, when I’d driven and rocked and swaddled and sung until I could do no more, I called my mother at work and cried. She heard the desperation in my voice and said, “Dara, you need to calm down. The more anxious you are, the more anxious she’ll be.”
She was right. I took a deep breath and surrendered to the moment, and things improved almost instantly. It was my first real-world experience with understanding just how strong an effect my behavior and attitude have on my daughter.
As adults, we tend to think that kids aren’t paying attention and that what we say to ourselves or each other in hushed tones goes right over their heads. Of course, if you’ve ever heard a toddler repeat a questionable word at a most inopportune moment — like when you’re outside chatting with your elderly neighbor, for instance — you probably already know that kids are soaking up our example much earlier than we think. Little girls have long raided their mothers’ jewelry boxes and makeup kits, trying to be just like Mom. I can remember Faith begging me to put curlers in her hair at the age of three; she’d seen me using hot rollers while getting ready for a wedding and wanted her hair to be “so beautiful,” too.
Toddlers and preschoolers are little imitators, and they’re quick to pick up on the behaviors they see and the comments they hear. When she’s young, your daughter’s behavior is all about pleasing you. That’s exactly how I found myself suffering the indignity of a perm at the hands of my mother in the family kitchen when I was just seven years old. Though I was certainly curious about why my fine, straight hair wasn’t OK the way it was, I wanted to make her happy, and if curly hair would do that, then I was willing to sit through the stinky mess. After all, what did I care? I’d rather be climbing fences and having stick-sword fights with the neighborhood boys. Now I just looked like a poodle while doing it.
As moms, we set the tone in teaching our girls about appearance and what it means. Karin, age forty-eight, was thrilled to give birth to a baby girl just as the second of her two sons was heading off to kindergarten. She filled the nursery closet with pink and had visions of dressing her little princess in ladylike tights, dresses, and hair bows. But Amanda, who’s now thirteen, had other ideas. Though Karin tried to dress Amanda like a pretty doll, by the time she was a toddler, Amanda preferred overalls and rolling around on the floor with her older brothers.
“I always liked to fix her hair, and she didn’t like to have her hair fixed,” Karin tells me. “She didn’t like to shop. It was all very frustrating to me.” Ultimately, Karin says, she had to let go and let Amanda be just who she is.
But letting go is so hard, isn’t it?
I imagine there’s not a woman reading this who can’t remember at least one time when her mom forced her to wear something she remembers as truly horrific (for me, it was a fake-fur white hood that buttoned under the chin, which prompted my brothers to call me a sheep and make “baa” noises whenever I wore it). When we insist that our daughters look a certain way — whether it’s what they wear, how their hair looks, or how they have to behave in what they’re wearing — we’re building the foundation for how they see their bodies and the importance of how they look.
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When I became a mom myself, I soon learned that although my little girl wanted to please me, she also had a mind of her own. She liked to choose her own outfits and preferred dresses; she balked at the adorable little matching pants-and-shirts combinations I picked out for her. My mother, an avid seamstress, had made a few jumpers for Faith, and Faith wanted to wear them all the time. My inner feminist worried that the dresses would interfere with her running, climbing, and playing. So we compromised: For almost a year, Faith wore a dress over her pants and shirt — even as she made mud pies in the backyard and wrestled with her brother. Somewhere, there’s a great family photo of her in a football jersey and a white tutu. I love that picture. For me, it’s the ultimate portrait of what being a little girl means — moving between the glamour of grown-up ladies and the rough-and-tumble action of exploring the world.
Who wants to grow up?
Ever remember your mom telling you to “act like a lady”? I was at a kid’s birthday party recently where a little girl in a beautiful frilly dress was enjoying the breeze she made as she spun and spun, her dress flying up, not a care in the world. I’ll never forget the look on her face as her mother took her by the arm, told her to stop, and informed her that “nice girls don’t do that.”
Later, as the cake was cut, the grown-up women inevitably began to discuss calorie counts and how they “really shouldn’t” have a piece. For the little girls in the room who were watching, the lesson was that “acting like a lady” means you don’t get cake — not a whole lot of incentive to grow up there! Or if you do take a piece, being a grown-up lady means you spend the next twenty minutes talking about how you don’t deserve cake because your thighs are already too big.
What’s the real effect? I’ve been guilty of thinking that those kinds of comments go right over my daughter’s head — or that she gets the “joke” — but the reality is our girls don’t, especially if they hear us talking that way frequently. One isolated remark here or there about your body probably isn’t going to damage your daughter, but when mothers repeatedly make negative comments about their bodies, it creates a model for how daughters feel about themselves, says Andrea Vazzana, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing at the NYU Child Study Center. She’s seen it play out in her practice: Mothers who constantly talk about their bodies send a message to their daughters that physical appearance is important. And when mothers talk about their dissatisfaction with their bodies, daughters can come to think that feeling bad about their bodies is the norm, putting them at higher risk for developing similar feelings and for making negative comments about their own bodies.
Video: Teach your daughter to love her body (on this page) Telling your daughter that she’s going to end up just like you — or worse, telling her that you hope she doesn’t end up like you — is dangerous ground. “My nana is an overweight person, and she’s always saying that boys won’t be interested in me at all if I don’t try to make myself as pretty as I can be,” says Amanda, age thirteen. I’ve caught myself telling Faith that I hope she’ll be taller than I am. What I was thinking was that being taller might mean she wouldn’t have to work as hard to maintain a healthy weight and might have an easier time finding clothes that fit her well. What she heard, of course, was “being short isn’t a good thing.” And since height is a physical attribute that can’t be changed, was I planting the seed for a lifetime of her feeling that she’s “less than” for something she can’t do anything about?
It might sound extreme, I know, but offhand comments like these and our own behavior toward our bodies have a profound effect on our girls. “My mom says her bum is too big,” Kelly, age fourteen, says. “She exercises a lot, and she doesn’t eat desserts. I hate it when she tells me my jeans are too tight.”
Who among us can’t remember a time when someone — if it wasn’t a mom, maybe it was a grandma, an aunt, an uncle, or another “well-meaning” relative — said something that made us all of a sudden feel not quite right, often related to a body part that we supposedly “got” from someone else in the family? Ever been told you have your mom’s distinctively rounded bottom or your grandma’s knobby knees? I’m willing to bet you never looked at those body parts the same way after that.
When you fixate out loud on some physical part that you don’t like about yourself, whether it’s your thighs, your nose, your middle, or any body part you imagine to be your most grotesque flaw, you may be teaching your daughter that the whole package of “who we are” doesn’t matter. Instead, we teach them to pick themselves apart and dissect their flaws as we’ve done to ourselves. We teach them to imagine that other people look at them and see only the things they don’t like about themselves. And we teach them not to trust their own judgment about what beauty really is.
“I’m really self-conscious about certain things, and a lot of times I only talk about it with friends I have that sort of think the same thing about the way they look,” says Amanda. “I would [like to] lose some weight. I mean, I wouldn’t make myself super-skinny — just average-sized. Also, I’d want to be a bit shorter. I’m not a huge fan of how tall I am.”
Excerpted from “You'd Be So Pretty If...” by Dara Chadwick. Copyright (c) 2009. reprinted with permission from Perseus Books. For more on this book, click here.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive