You'd Be So Pretty If...

How to teach your daughter to love her body—even when you don't love your own.

Back to School Body Blues

When ‘I Want to Look Different’ Really Means ‘I Want to Be Somebody Else’

Parents, raise your hand if you’ve been there — it’s late August, and your daughter comes to you and says [pick one…or more]:

  • •“My clothes are all wrong”
  • •“I hate my hair”
  • •“These shoes are stupid”
  • •“My jeans are too [tight, loose, flared, skinny, etc.]. Nobody else is wearing these.”

You get the idea. These complaints are often followed by a declaration that this school year Will. Be. Different.

What’s going on?

A reader asked me recently why her daughter gets so worked up about her hair and clothes before school starts each year — to her I offered my sympathy, and this guess:

It’s about much more than hair and clothes.

Adolescence is a tricky time for most kids and few things produce as much anxiety as appearance. After all, it’s the packaging they show to the peer group and to some degree, it advertises who they are – or at least who they think they are. The new school year, with its fresh, “clean slate” feeling, is an opportunity for an advertising do-over. It’s a way to project a whole new persona.

You can see it in the freshman girls, with their short skirts, heavy black eyeliner and self-conscious checking of any reflective surface: “I’m not a baby anymore,” the appearance tries to scream. “Look at me!”

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You can see it in the boys, too, as they try to master an “I don’t care” posture that practically shouts: “Please think I’m cool.”

Sure, it’s frustrating – and often heart-breaking – when your kid comes to you with a litany of complaints about his or her appearance. It’s tempting to simply say, “Those jeans are fine,” or “Your hair is perfect the way it is.” But just remember for a moment what it felt like on that first day of school: New classmates, new teachers, new expectations…maybe even a whole new school.

It’s easy to re-connect with that panicked feeling, isn’t it?

So what can you do? You might try to:

  • Delay a major shopping trip. It’s tempting to try to get all back-to-school shopping done in one weekend. But a new outfit or two for the first couple of days might give your kid a chance to see that no, she won’t be the only one wearing a certain style. With a little research, she’ll hopefully be a more confident shopper.
  • Expect a certain level of conformity. While you might think that dress looks adorable on her (and she might agree), she might not want to buy it if none of her friends are wearing that style. Fitting in is really important in early adolescence. Besides, a bit of fashion conformity might give her the self-confidence to say no to more dangerous peer pressures.
  • Help her feel that she looks her best. OK, so you don’t love the look she’s put together. She does? As long as it’s not inappropriate, let her wear what makes her feel confident among her friends.

Happy shopping…and happy school year!

Dara Chadwick is the author of You'd Be So Pretty If… :Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don't Love Our Own.

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