As parents or caregivers, those of us with little girls and young women in our lives have an incredible responsibility. Not only do we need to see to the physical health and well-being of the children in our care, but we also need to be aware of the messages we send, whether consciously or subconsciously.
While it seems like it shouldn’t be that hard, we should first ask ourselves: are we as strong, confident, and self-assured as each of us would like to be? Unfortunately, the answer for many of us, myself included is, “Well, yes…usually. Sometimes. I guess it depends on the situation.”
The problem with that is that our girls learn not just what we actively teach them, but they also learn by our example. We’ve all seen the pictures of the little girl playing with Mommy’s makeup, or playing dress-up with Mommy’s clothes or shoes.
Behaving mindfully is not easy, but it’s exactly what those of us with girls in our care need to do. Otherwise, our own insecurities might send them down an unintended path.
How many times have you heard a woman bemoaning her weight, and going on yet another perpetual diet? If you’re like me, you hear it all the time.
But what happens when that woman has a daughter at home, who–like all kids–imitates her mother?
I’ve seen it firsthand. I know of a particular girl who, at age 8, was already talking about going on a diet, wearing bikinis and diamond earrings to the pool, and who was more worried about their new manicure than doing a cannonball into the water. She was the absolute spitting image of her mother.
Observing that particular child made me very sad. Not that my kids or I are perfect, mind you. There are plenty of things I shouldn’t do, but I do them anyway, and they know it. My daughters have definitely seen me go head-first into a bag of Hershey Kisses when the stresses of life have gotten to me, especially if those stresses pile on top of a monthly cycle, when chocolate becomes not just a treat, but almost a necessity!
Parents must make conscious decisions and act with intention when raising daughters. Perhaps I’m wrong, and parents with sons will tell me differently, but I think it’s even more critical with girls than boys. Girls already internalize so much negative self-image and body issues, just from the mass media in general, and also from each other. Boys tend to be quicker to accept each other than girls; they aren’t anywhere near as vicious as girls can be about each others’ appearances.
That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Certainly it does, or you wouldn’t have boys suffering from bulimia or taking steroids in the quest for the perfect “six pack abs”. However, I think girls do get it far worse–and it’s far more insidious, because it’s been part of society for so long. Boys never had to fight for the right to vote, for the right to play sports, or for equal pay. Girls have.
There are a number of things we can each do with girls to help them build their own self-confidence, and to help them to appreciate their own strengths and uniqueness. Below is a list of specific things my husband and I practice on a daily basis with our own daughters. Some of them also cross over to our roles as teachers; they apply across classrooms and grade levels, and have been used from 4th grade on up to 8th grade science.
- Make a conscious decision to discuss women’s image in the media. Many people are not critical consumers of magazines; girls are no different. They’re interested in what they’re reading or seeing, but they don’t stop to look critically at what they are reading, nor do they evaluate it for relevancy or reality. They need to not only be taught what reality is, they need to be taught to be critical consumers of it; knowing that magazines aren’t real and that airbrushing happens will help them fight back against the body image problems that might otherwise plague them. One of my most successful moments in middle school science was when we sidetracked into a conversation about women’s image in the media, and I put up a webpage on our class website showing the girls how photos are airbrushed and manipulated. The girls were outraged. I remember one of my students coming in with an ad she had ripped out of a magazine, disgusted that the picture was so airbrushed, they had even removed the little red veins in the model’s eyeballs, making the whites of her eyes “look like egg whites”.
- Find out what the girls in your life are interested in, and support that. Girls need to be allowed to follow their interests, and find out what they really like to do. That doesn’t mean encouraging them to do what you like. For example, I like to run, and often go for long, leg-busting walks. My oldest daughter calls that torture, not fun. If I tried to drag her into it, it would become a trial for both of us, and wouldn’t help her to develop any self-confidence. Have you ever heard of the show, “Toddlers and Tiaras”? I know many little girls, my own included, who would love to dress up and put on makeup and parade around while playing. My own five year old loves an occasional romp through Sephora–and I support it, because we focus on the pretty colors, and not on “looking pretty”. I can’t honestly be convinced that the children in “Toddlers and Tiaras” would willingly choose to get dressed up like a prostitute, or that any little girl–of their own accord–would willingly choose to have botox injections. These girls are influenced by what their mothers want; nothing more, nothing less.
- Don’t stereotype. Ever. If you buy into stereotypes, you’re teaching your daughter to believe them, too. Stereotypes should always be challenged. Not all girls are into Princesses. Not all boys are great at sports. Not all Italians are in the mafia. Not all Muslims are terrorists. In our family, we are blessed with a five-year-old girl who loves pink and princesses, but whose favorites include Captain America, dragons, bugs, and anything slimy. We have had to learn to expect her to race through the house in full Captain America getup, threatening to take out Nazis; she is just as likely to bring in a slug or a jar full of “pet stink bugs”. None of us would ever think to tell her that girls don’t do these things. Who are we to tell her she can’t some day become an Entomologist–or a bungee-jumping Marine sniper?
- Do praise her abilities, her accomplishments, and her hard work. That means when you compliment a girl, you’re not focusing on her face or her body (“Oh you’re so pretty” or “What a pretty girl!”). Complimenting a girl’s effort or achievements puts the focus squarely on where it should be: the girl’s actions and behaviors. A girl should always be measured by and praised for what she does, not what she looks like. Better compliments are, “Wow, you worked really hard on that,” or “That must have taken a lot of time and effort”.
- Assume girls can excel in math and science; encourage your daughter’s efforts and praise her results in these classes. Unfortunately, it’s too common to expect that girls won’t do well, even though they have the same capabilities as boys. For example, in 1992, a “Teen Talk” talking Barbie Doll was on store shelves, and one of the many comments this talking Barbie said was, “Math class is tough!” That a major company would even consider this a good choice for a girl’s toy is indicative of how little confidence many have in the ability of girls to excel in math and science. There is a good article here on math and science education, and girls.
Tomorrow, I will share more tips for raising strong, confident, self-assured girls. These are just the tip of the iceberg. There are daily decisions that must be made as you guide, teach, and help girls in reaching their fullest potential. These ideas are intended to become more mindful in your dealings with girls. It is through mindfulness, education, and attention that we will help our girls learn, and fight against, body image stereotypes and objectification.