Tween Girls and Their Bodies: What Can Moms Do?
Girls need a positive example and a sense of context.
Posted June 5, 2009
I've been doing a ton of media interviews lately for my new book, You'd Be So Pretty If...: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies -- Even When We Don't Love Our Own, and one of the questions I'm often asked is, "How can I help my daughter feel good about her body?"
It's a tricky question, mainly because the key word in that sentence is "help." As moms, we so want to wave our magic wand and make everything right for our girls. But the cold reality is that you can't make someone feel good about themselves. It has to come from within.
Still, that doesn't mean that moms should give up. There's plenty we can do to bolster girls' self-esteem, even in the supremely self-critical tween years. The two absolute most important things moms can offer their girls in times of shaky body image are a positive example and a sense of context.
What do I mean by that? Well, a positive example is fairly straightforward. If you want your daughter to feel good about her body, she's got to witness you feeling good about yours. That means good self-care habits like healthy eating and exercise, a relaxed approach to your body that makes room for occasional treats like ice cream and pizza (as well as a day off from exercise that doesn't end with you berating yourself) and a habit of speaking kindly about your body. Rather than let her hear you pick apart your "flaws" or curse the genetic influences that created your hips and thighs, let her hear you say something nice.
I know you can find something nice to say.
A sense of context is also vital. In her recent piece for the Huffington Post, author Donna Fish writes, "Their negative and critical comments may trigger in you feelings of responsibility for needing to help them have 'good self-esteem.' This is not your problem. Your job is to help them 'tolerate' the feelings without acting in a self destructive manner. You do this by surviving their 'dumping' their feelings onto you at times, and otherwise, 'get out of the way!'"
While I agree that daughters often "dump" their feelings on their moms, I don't think this is something we should aim to tolerate and otherwise ignore. For me, this is exactly where context comes into play. When my daughter comes to me with a complaint about herself or something that's happening, my first job is to listen. My second is to gently work with her -- through asking questions about what she's said, sharing my own experience (if she wants to hear it, of course) and helping her talk through different theories -- until she's able to be more objective about herself and whatever she's criticizing.
If she complains about her body, I'll listen, but I'll also ask her why she thinks that. Gently asking questions can help you find out where the self-criticism is coming from. Did someone say something mean at school? Are her jeans feeling too tight and she's worried that she's gaining weight? Armed with information, moms are in a much better position to help their girls see themselves less critically. Yes, the tween years can be very shaky in terms of self-esteem and body image, but the more I can help my daughter understand that she's not yet a finished product and that she's not the only one feeling such things, the more I'm helping to strengthen her sense of self -- and teaching her to be kinder to herself, too.
What's your take?