The holiday season is over
and the season of body talk is in full swing.
Every other ad on TV is for weight loss, friends bemoan the extra cookies they ate, and the grocery store check-out line is a gauntlet of “thinspiration” images with promises to slim down fast. Usually I can ignore this media noise, but this year, six weeks after giving birth to my second child, I am tempted by the alluring siren call of a brand new me. Why not make it a resolution? But as a new parent and an advocate of girls’ leadership, I find myself wrestling with the broader implications of this seemingly harmless annual tradition.
The intent of the resolution is innocent enough.
We want to take advantage of the cycle of reflection and self-improvement, and so jump on the annual weight loss bandwagon. But the message received by girls and those around us may last longer than toned triceps. Girls listen to the common holiday exchanges between adults (“I think I must have gained five pounds this week,” “I can’t believe I ate all of that!”) and may hear, “fat is bad, my mom/aunt doesn’t like her body, and that is totally normal.” Gradually, these messages become part of their thoughts; in a few years, they will become their own words. Many of us want to blame the omnipresent media for the mysterious loss of confidence that takes hold of many girls as they approach adolescence, but we may be perpetuating the high value on appearances and thinness without even realizing it.
This is more than a diet and body issue, it is a leadership issue.
We know that toys, media, and advertising can send girls limiting messages about their worth and potential. We can stand up against these negative external influences, but equally important is the presence of everyday role models –moms, aunts, and neighbors—who exemplify the confidence and self-acceptance we would like to see in our daughters. The constant self-critical mindset robs girls of not only their love of self, but, as many women know, may turn into years of wasted energy focused on scales and sizes instead of friendships, projects, and new ideas. It becomes countless positive risks not taken –risks as small as raising a hand in class or as significant as addressing a conflict with a friend– simply because girls are scared of how they will be seen and judged.
Many parents, especially those of us from New England, try to approach this challenge by ignoring it (“But I’ve never even said the word calorie to my daughter!”). But not saying anything ignores the incredible ability most girls possess to read non-verbal cues. They watch our scrunched up faces as we look at ourselves in the mirror. They hear the “ugh!” when we check the rear-view. It seems almost laughable to imagine staring at your full-length reflection and saying, “looking good!” Yet, the converse assessment has become so common as to be strangely more comfortable. What if we simply smiled at our reflection in the mirror?
What if our New Year’s resolution wasn’t to change ourselves, but to love and accept ourselves the way we want our daughters, nieces, neighbors, and students to love themselves?
That would be dreamy, but we’ve grown up in this culture too; even if we wanted to, we can’t flip a switch on our self-perception. What we can do is become aware of the impact of our words and our body language has on the girls watching and listening. Just as we edit our use of swear words when kids are around, we should think about modifying our body talk too. When we talk about our body or our eating habits we need to ask ourselves, would I want my daughter saying the same thing about herself in school tomorrow? If not, then we shouldn’t give them the script and the permission.
This year’s resolution needs to be giving ourselves the scripts that we dream our girls’ thoughts will be. Who knows, maybe even just faking a healthier relationship to our bodies will help us actually get there eventually.
This year I resolve to change how I talk about myself, both for my own good, as well as my boys.I don’t want Ollie and Jude growing up hearing that their mom doesn’t like her body. I want them to know that even when my body is in limbo, it is amazing, surprisingly strong, and possesses some awesome dance moves. If they should ever hear a friend, colleague, or family member mutter something about not liking her hips or thighs, I hope those comments strike them as confusing and cruel, far from okay and certainly not normal. The impact of this resolution spreads beyond me and my family, making it one worth actually keeping.