Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beauty and the Teen

A friend of mine posted an article on the facebook today entitled How to Talk to Little Girls.  Certainly I concur with the author's point about the problem facing young women and an overemphasis on beauty.  It also sits well with me to encourage a young woman to develop her other talents and develop her mind.

But what bothered me a bit was to hold back enthusiasm about the adorableness of little girls because seriously, how can you not rave about someone that looks like this:


And when your natural instinct to express your love for how much she gives you joy to see her, witholding that enthusiasm and giving into a "don't you love to hike?  I do!" doesn't quite convey how much it pleases you to see her face.

But what struck me the most about this article is that it neglects the research that I believe to ring true--that the main influence on a young girl's body image is in fact her relationship with her mother as well as her mother's own body image.  Do these young girls seeking ways to be more beautiful have mothers who are completely satisfied with their own looks (not sure this is fair to ask, is any woman?)

I read an article years ago about the influence of a mother's body image and got some great tips:

  • Praise your own body in front of your daughter by saying things like "don't I look good in this swimsuit" or "doesn't this color look pretty on mommy?"  
  • Avoid saying things like "I am fat" or referring to your dieting practices. 
  • Stay focused on health
I will admit that this was very difficult for me at first, not really feeling like "mommy looks pretty in a swimsuit" ever.  And, perhaps looking at this cyclically, my mother had a very tortured relationship with her own body image and constantly complained that she was overweight--at a mere 120 lbs.  I have never once in my life looked at my body with any level of satisfaction.

But wanting to try something new with my own daughters, I have worked very hard to appreciate my own looks in front of them.  I feel that this has been very successful and the level of confidence my oldest daughter has is tremendous in comparison with where I was at her age a quarter of a century ago.

This whole theory was tested last week when my 8-year old, watching me zumba to a youtube video, asked "Mommy, did you ever think that you were fat?"


But rather than shout my true feelings, I did what any good mother does: lie.

"Well, honey, I see other women, like in this video, and I know my body does not look like that.  What I try to think about is keeping my body healthy with good exercise and healthy eating so that I can feel good about myself.  So I try not to look at other women and notice what I look like in comparison with them."

She seemed pleased with my response--I had to really refrain from asking her why-- I am not sure if she was asking me because she was worried about her own body or if she was thinking that I looked kind of fat, I just didn't have the mental space to handle her answer if she said "well you are kind of bigger than those girls" when I was in the middle of sweating up a storm to lose those 7 grad school pounds.

I have come a long way, baby.

The main point I wish to make here is that refraining from telling a girl she is beautiful because you do not want to reinforce what society says only works if everyone else is fighting that battle too, specifically, her mother.   But we cannot pretend that beauty is going to be less important over time if we all just stop complimenting young women on their looks.  So I propose a compromise, next time you want to squeal in delight at the young curly-haired girl at the dinner party:

1) Stick with a focus on the talent as the primary goal of the conversation
2) Still tell her she is beautiful, for what harm does it do for her to believe it about herself?
3) Compliment yourself in the conversation so she sees role models who are confident

Imagine this modified version of the conversation:

"Look at this beautiful child!!! What are you reading beautiful child with the yummy curls?  I LOVE books too."  And when she says that she reads books all by herself?  You say "Are you kidding me?  You read a book by yourself?  Age 5?  That is completely awesome and actually pretty rare." 

And as you are telling her about the book you wrote, the success you experienced as a professional woman and your favorite color somehow comes up, why not throw in a "...which is why I wore this green dress because really, don't I look fabulous?"

I want girls to understand that their talents, intellect, and hard work are key to confidence and identity. But I also want them to feel confident enough in their looks to allow them to put their talents on the front page and hearing other women say that they are beautiful (even when we perhaps are not) seems to me to be a much better way to respond to our own instincts about complimenting a cute face while raising healthy girls.


  1. I'm so glad you posted this. As a mom of two little girls, I'm starting to try to figure out my own ideas on modesty, body image, and healthy eating. I agree with you, it is beyond difficult to not share my sincere feelings of how beautiful they are! If given in moderation and with other compliments that focus on their talents I think it is fine.
    I remember feeling proud of my mom and really pleased inside on the few times that she said things like, "You know, I think I look pretty good today."

  2. I am lucky to be your friend and our Young Women (and all women) are lucky to have you as an inspiration!!

  3. This is wonderful Lee. My favorite posts of yours are ones I can picture you delivering as TED talks.