Both of my daughters dance. They have an incredible ability (that I don’t share!) to communicate their emotions and ideas through the power of movement. They practice hours on end at home and the studio to push their bodies to new levels. They celebrate their growth and accomplishments, and I sit in the audience amazed at what they can do.
But it’s also soul-crushing when they compare their bodies to those of another teammate – or to an Instagram photo of a ballerina or contemporary dancer they admire. Their achievements and beauty seem to immediately fade in their own eyes when they are confronted with something they are not, and think they should be.
Comparison is the thief of joy
Unfortunately, my daughters’ reactions to immediately compare instead of celebrate is common. Think of the incredible numbers of images we see daily of women in advertisements, social media, and television/film. How many of them portray women as objects of beauty based on their physical bodies alone? Isn’t the message to be younger, fitter, sexier? Do we celebrate much beyond what is skin-deep? How do we go up against something so pervasive?
This enormity of this issue reminds me of the saying about eating an elephant. How do you do it? One bite at a time.
We may not be able to radically change society’s perception of women overnight, but we can make a measurable difference in our homes, our neighborhoods, and local communities.
We recently asked one of the directors of Beauty Redefined, Lexie Kite, PhD, a few questions to help us promote a different definition of beauty. She and her sister, Lindsey, started their organization to help girls and women improve their body image and self-worth as they wade through harmful cultural ideals.
Beauty Redefined: How to help girls have healthy body image
1. What are the most powerful voices children hear that determine how they see themselves and ultimately define beauty?
Two influential voices kids hear:
- Their family and caretakers, and
- The characters they watch on screen.
The voice of family members
If you say something negative about your body or your looks (or any other woman — celebrity or otherwise), that child near you WILL HEAR. It will negatively affect her view of her own body. She will learn that her value is based on how she looks.
But here’s the kicker: Even if you say something positive about a woman’s body, it can still have a negative impact on your child. She will learn that what is noticed and admired is how a woman looks — herself included.
We can consciously be aware of what we say, and move the conversation beyond appearances. The results are powerful and immediate!
What’s a parent to do?
- Start now to change the conversation. First priority? No more rude comments about your own looks. Second? Evaluate how you talk about others’ appearances and what motivates you to do so.
- Discuss the power of words — both positive and negative.
- Don’t pretend like your daughter’s body doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter — teach her that it matters a lot, but not for the reasons she’s been taught.
- Explain that companies try to convince people that their appearance needs to be “fixed” so they will buy their products. But nothing we could ever buy will truly help us feel worthy of love, happiness, and success.
- Teach them what to say when they hear snide comments.
- Make a list of things your family can compliment each other on other than physical appearance.
- Encourage girls to participate in sports and enjoyable physical activities. Did you hear about the most recent female football player?
The voice of media
It’s wildly important to help your kids choose appropriate shows and critically consider what they are seeing. Many girls and women are featured on TV, in movies, or in magazines purely as props to be ogled.
In children’s animated movies, female characters are barely represented – and when they are, they are wearing just as little clothing as women in R-rated films. Did you know male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1) in kids’ movies? Let’s show our girls media that uplifts them and shows them what they can be.
What’s a parent to do?
- Read girls stories about girls. Did you know there’s a whole website dedicated to books that highlight true strength of girls?
- Help your daughter decide if she is ready for social media, especially Instagram. Use the questions in this article to lead a discussion.
- Check out sites like Common Sense Media to help you determine what movies, books, and apps may directly influence how your daughter defines beauty.
2. What are some indicators that our children may need us to help develop a new working definition of beauty?
If she uses the “F” Word – “Fat”: If your child calls herself or someone else “fat” in a disparaging way, that is a sign she has learned some harmful messages that some bodies are more valuable than other bodies.
What’s a parent to do?
- Respond without putting a value on fat. It’s not good or bad. It just is. The second you respond to her calling someone “fat” by telling her “That’s not nice!” you are teaching her that fat is bad.
- Be a champion for body diversity.
- Talk openly about how some bodies have more fat than others for a variety of different reasons, and that isn’t an indication of of health. (The Health at Every Size movement is incredible.)
- If your child is called “fat,” don’t automatically respond by assuring them they are not fat. Telling a child they really are thin will not protect them from the pain of being called “fat.” If we give size-based comments the power to build us up, we reinforce their power to tear us down.
- Teach her that her body is an instrument, not an ornament. Treat your own body the same way.
She Uses the “D” Word – Diet: Another indicator of poor body image might be when your child wants to go on a diet or you see that she is restricting food.
What’s a parent to do?
- Let her know that many people and companies in this world try to convince little girls and grown women that they should shrink and take up less space, but it’s a mean lie. This lie is intended to get girls to spend money and time worrying about their bodies.
- Talk to her about how our bodies need and want food for lots of reasons, including for fuel and enjoyment. By paying attention to how she feels when she eats, she can take better care of her body and trust that her body will lead her toward choices that are good for her.
- Let her know strict diets can hurt our bodies and almost never lead to sustained weight loss.
3. How does society’s definition of beauty contribute to the anxiety many kids feel today?
When kids grow up surrounded by appearance-obsessed messages such as “Weigh Less, Smile More!!” and “Perfect Your Parts, Perfect Your Life!!” plastered everywhere, those messages rake in billions but get us nowhere closer to real health and happiness. Instead, these messages become so normal — SO unquestioned — that we believe and act as we’re told.
The point here is not to villainize makeup, hair care, or any industry, but to understand the ways these ever-present messages ask us to view ourselves. That view is an outsider’s gaze – from the outside looking in on ourselves. It’s called self-objectification and it’s a normal part of most females’ lives now, whether we know it or not.
What research and real-life experiences make very clear is that when we see ourselves as more than our bodies, we get closer to finding health, fitness, and happiness.
What’s a parent to do?
- Make a list with your daughter of all the wonderful inner traits you both have. Celebrate those!
- Talk about goals and dreams you both have where you can use those traits. If we are so focused on our physical bodies, it stunts our progress in every way that really matters. Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at”, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness.
4. How does pornography specifically shape the way we as a society define beauty? What impact does this have on boys? On girls?
We live in a media-driven world that teaches boys and men from a young age that girls and women are, first and foremost, objects of sexual pleasure. This lesson is taught in lots of ways, ranging from the seemingly harmless lack of female characters in TV shows, books, movies, and video games targeted at boys and men, to the most popular pornography saturating the internet.
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When female characters rarely have speaking roles or do anything to move the plot forward in media, that sends a clear message that they are primarily valued for the way they appear or for their relationship to men (love interests, most often). When female characters do appear in children’s media, they most often resemble the sexualized beauty ideals of the rest of media.
What message could this possibly send to boys other than that girls are valuable for their bodies, but nothing more?
The normalization of pornography and sexual objectification in the media is everywhere. Yet it is largely invisible to people who have slowly become accustomed to seeing idealized female bodies in all states of undress. Women are much more likely than men to be naked or nearly naked in every form of media imaginable. Women are also much more likely to be sexually objectified in violent ways (rape, assault, abuse) in every form of media.
Objectification is dehumanization. As media literacy expert Jean Kilbourne says, “Turning a person into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”
We can talk to our kids about what they are seeing and why it is wrong.
Conclusion: We CAN raise girls who love themselves – the whole package
As we watch what we say about women, and call out all the harmful media messages surrounding our girls, they will learn to respect their bodies as instruments that can do amazing things! We can help them re-frame their self-image and reclaim their power. That benefits everyone, girls and boys, men and women!
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