Children Learn What They Live: the body image edition

I’ve written before about my own journey toward personal self-acceptance a couple of times. Once and Twice This post is about how I want to instill in my children the desire to love, respect, and take care of their bodies in a way I never did and I was younger.

My girls and I watch movies together. I think of it as an exercise in media literacy; it gives us an opportunity to evaluate what is happening and discuss the messages, both direct and implied. How this works: we pause the movie where they have questions or there’s something I think is important to point out, talk briefly, and then resume. Some of the movies we watch are things like “Bolt, or “The Incredibles but others have more mature situations in them like “Hitch or “Pursuit of Happyness. I don’t know about you but I personally would rather have my children see this as opposed to violence. Most importantly, I am there present watching with them. It feels like a reality check if things in the movie get too intense.

When Marcia and Cindy were five- and seven-years old respectively, we started watching the movie “Mean Girls. There is one scene in “Mean Girls where the popular girls stand in front of a mirror and criticize their bodies: “My hairline is so weird, “I have man shoulders, and “My nail beds suck, etc. They then look expectantly at the girl who has not been socialized in this way to join in the party.

I know this behavior is not unique to teen girls because I know plenty of adult women who do this to this day. I catch myself doing it from time to time. But I began to realize that my girls were NOT doing this to themselves¦ yet and I thought it made sense to plan a preemptive strike.

The next time we had a bath night I tried something new. I reminded my girls of the movie. I spoke with happiness and enthusiasm, kind of like a cheerleader voice without the volume.

“Do you girls remember the scene in “Mean Girls when The Plastics stood in front of the mirror and said bad things about their bodies?

“Yeah.

“Well, it’s sad to not like your body because you are in it for your WHOLE LIFE. We’ve already talked about all the wonderful things our bodies do for us. So, I want to try something different. I’m gonna stand in front of the mirror and say three things I like about my body. Do you want to try too?

“Okay! — The cheerleader voice was working.

I went first. Now keep in mind this is done with the intention of modeling positive behavior. It can be done in underwear or a swimsuit if you are not as comfortable naked. I stood in front of the full length mirror and looked all around myself. After some assessment I said, “I like my neck, my breasts, and my legs. **Note: Children are masterful at being able to pick up on nonverbal cues and inconsistencies so if your children have seen you look in the mirror and criticize your body or wince when you look in the mirror, you’re going to have more work ahead of you and need to do this more often to try to undo that prior impression. Or at least be more mindful of it when your children are in your zip code. You already KNOW how well they hear you from another distant part of the house.

Marcia who was 7 at the time stepped up next. Without hesitation, she said, “I like my lips, my eyes, and my hair. It was obvious she already knew what she liked about herself. Man I hope that never goes away¦

Cindy, then five, was no shrinking violet either. She stepped right up to the mirror, turned from side to side and said confidently, “I like my bweasts, my butt, and my pwivate pawts. I giggled out loud at that response here thinking to myself “Oh no you di-in’t! but I was very conscious not to make my giggle appear critical or unaccepting in any way. I told her that was so sweet, why wouldn’t those parts be her favorite parts? They’re awesome and she knows they belong to her. When we finished I told the girls I was proud of them because there are adult women who can’t do this exercise because they have a hard time finding things they like.

I have tried to explain to my children that when they hear other girls criticize their own bodies it may be a result of what they have seen on TV, magazines, or other media or behavior they have witnessed other women in their lives do. The people at Dove established the Dove Self-Esteem Fund and created this video that I think is fantastic to watch¦ especially if you have daughters.

Since that first exercise in front of the mirror with my girls, we’ve added other things along the way. We talk about the non-physical qualities we appreciate in ourselves and in each other and we’ve talked about the features and characteristics we like about each other. It’s nice to hear someone say something nice once in a while when there’s not any innuendo or expectation attached.

To be totally honest, the first time I did this mirror exercise was when I was 40¦ and I cried. It’s not easy, especially if you’ve grown up in America given the influences we have. My mother gives me harsh looks when I compliment my girls on their bodies. And when she does it I understand a little more each time as to why it took me nearly 40 years to accept my own body. I’m sure Pride as one of the Seven Deadly Sins is what my Catholic mother is worried about. However there are two top definitions of pride:

World English Dictionary
pride (praɪd)
\’ n
1. a feeling of honour and self-respect; a sense of personal worth
2. excessive self-esteem; conceit

Where is that line crossed? I’m sure it’s something far more sinister than being able to look in the mirror and appreciate the good things you see.

I think having a healthy self-image and respect for one’s body is an essential part of a person’s sexuality. Sometimes a tremendous amount of control is needed to resist the temptations of sex as a hormone-laden teen. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of strength to demand protection in the form of birth control/STI prevention. And if one is not bought into the idea that they deserve to have a strong, healthy sense of self-worth? Well, that’s where we see bad judgment around sexual activity. I want my children to be able to know, love and respect their own bodies so they can make decisions that won’t put these amazing little bodies needlessly in harm’s way as they grow up.

This video is a little treat for you as you finish reading this, especially if you are a woman who has a hard time with this topic.

You are beautiful and amazing. Much love to you,
The MamaSutra

The MamaSutra

Mother of two girls. Holds a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Certificate in Women's Studies from UW-Madison. Graduate of IASHS as Master of Human Sexuality. The articles you read here have goals in two main areas. 1) I strive to normalize conversations about sex and sexuality between parents and their children. To me this means helping parents accept and nurture their daughters' budding sexuality so they grow and learn to respect their bodies and accept their whole selves as they grow into strong, beautiful, powerful and healthy women. 2) Female Sexual Empowerment. Women deserve to learn about and explore the pleasure that can be felt through a full sexual life - however each of us may define that - without guilt, shame, or embarrassment.

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