Our Daughters, Our Selves

By Sara Vigneri

It’s the morning of my niece’s party and I’m in a frenzy trying to find something to wear. I’ve got Spanx over control top panty hose and I still feel like a sausage squeezed into my dress. As mortification sets in, my 11-year-old daughter confidently saunters into my room.

“Can I borrow your black dress?” she asks.

As she tries on the dress, I watch as she looks herself over in the mirror. “Does this make me look wide?” she asks. Standing next to her, two layers deep in control top clothing, it’s hard not to take some responsibility for what has occurred.

“Influences on body image come from many places, including how we, as moms, see and talk about ourselves,” says Elizabeth Ortiz, Assistant Professor of Communication at Cedar Crest College. “So when we say that these jeans make us look fat, or we wish we could lose 10 pounds before summer, our daughters hear us.” And when you couple that with the myriad of ‘ultra thin’ images our daughters are assaulted with on a daily basis it creates a world where girls (and moms) find it hard to be comfortable in their own skin.

“Our society makes it hard to have a good sense of self if you don’t have a ‘perfect’ body,” says Madeline Langman, Ph.D., a psychologist in Allentown. “In fact, if a woman has the audacity to accept herself as she is, society acts shocked that she is bucking expectations.” She explains that both mothers and daughters feel the pressure to fit into a mold, which inevitably means they don’t feel comfortable looking like themselves. And perhaps, our daughters have it even worse. I am reminded of a visit I once made to the toy store where I first witnessed Bratz dolls. These emaciated dolls, with their collagen-filled lips, spiky high heels, and barely-there shorts, perfectly illustrate the expectations put on our daughters at ridiculously young ages. In an article about the marketing of ‘sexy’ dolls like Bratz (or the new Monster High dolls), the American Psychological Association warned that “some evidence is starting to indicate that sexualized media do have an impact on behavior.”

My pre-teen daughter lives in a world pervaded by social media, cell phones and laptops streaming a steady supply of images and who-knows-what-else. So I decided to ask her what she thinks. And by ask, I mean email, because let’s face it, that’s the best way to really reach kids these days.

From: Sara

To: Ivy

What do you think when you see dolls like Bratz or some of the clothing that they sell for girls your age at the mall?

From: Ivy

To: Sara

I feel bad that all these girls my age are swept into believing that that is what they are ‘supposed’ to look like. They should dress–and be–the way they want to, and shouldn’t be so strongly influenced by things like that. Have you ever felt insecure with your body image?

Yikes! I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. The honest answer is ‘all the time.’ But I don’t want to perpetuate my self-esteem issues with her. “Girls tend to model what they see, so if as mothers we critique ourselves, our daughters tend to see that as a part of being a girl or woman,” says Ortiz. I try to recall all the times I’ve critiqued myself in front of my daughters and realize it’s too many to count–but I’m not alone. “Having a daughter who is in that tween age, there are times when I’ve seen my worst in her and thought I have to fix that,” says Rosalind Lucien, the founder/president of The Glam Squad which runs workshops to help empower women and boost self-confidence.

Both Langman and Ortiz advise moms to cut out all the negative talk about weight or appearance, and make an effort to focus on the positive. “When discussions about food and weight do come up, try to keep the focus on healthy living rather than on a desire for a certain body type,” says Ortiz. “For example, exercise enables us to look at our bodies as a tool for fun and fitness rather than as a hanger for the latest fashion trends.”  Langman adds that “moms should take pride in the things they have accomplished,” and to avoid any conversations about dieting. Armed with that advice, I email my daughter to explain that while I may have some issues with my body image, I am proud of how hard I work to keep my body healthy.

But my struggle with self-acceptance is constantly set back by the barrage of images that hold up this unrealistic ideal, daring us all to live up to it. There are days when I look in the mirror and think, ‘there’s no way I can get there.’ Lucien recounted a workshop she ran as part of The Glam Squad where she asks the group to mention women who they think are beautiful. “They will mention women like Gwyneth Paltrow or Beyonce,” she says. “So I pull out a picture of the celebrity without makeup and compare it to their glossy cover photos. I explain that you can look just as glamorous if you have a team of people to work on you and photo retouchers. We have to teach girls that what we see on TV and in the magazines is not real.” Langman also emphasizes the importance of teaching girls how to have a critical eye for media. “We need to encourage our daughters not to simply absorb what is fed to them via ads or other media,” she explains. “So if you see a commercial where a certain image is being promoted, ask your daughter, what are they trying to sell us? Help make her into a critical consumer.”

Combating the power that media holds over our sense of self needs to be a mother-daughter team effort. “Our pre-teen daughters really don’t know who they are, so they often define themselves by their mothers,” explains Langman. “We can be powerful role models as women who know that we are imperfect, and have appreciation for our own strengths and power.”

My email dings, it’s another message from Ivy, rethinking one of her previous answers to my questions about the impact that media images might have.

From: Ivy

To: Sara

Sometimes I do feel a little swept away thinking I need to be better than I am. But you have to keep your head high and realize you should be happy with who you are.

The course of this ‘conversation’ with my daughter surprises me. She is much more sophisticated and has a better sense of self than I had at her age, and quite possibly have at this moment. And I also realize that just asking her these questions, and giving her space to communicate, is an important part of this self-esteem teaching process. Lucien implemented ‘five minutes of truth’ with her daughter where she allows her daughter to unload whatever is on her mind–judgment free–for five minutes. “At the end she feels better because all she really wants is to feel validated,” she says. “Our girls need to feel like they matter.”

I hearken back to my daughter’s last email: “you should be happy with who you are.” Good advice, but so hard to accomplish. Langman says that learning to love oneself has a lot to do with understanding what drives your decisions, your values and goals in life and taking stock in your strengths and weaknesses. And most importantly, accepting that you are a work in progress: “Self esteem is not stagnant,” she reassures me. “We are always working on it.”

The first step for me is walking out the door in my dress, knowing that the body contained within may not be ‘ideal’, but it’s healthy and worth being proud of. As I walk down the stairs my daughter looks me over.

“You look great, mom!”

“Thanks, I feel great,” I respond.

“But, can I wear those shoes?”

Elizabeth R. Ortiz: Elizabeth.Ortiz@cedarcrest.edu, 610-606-4666 x3429

Rosalind Lucien: rosalind@projectglamsquad.com, cell 201-913-3893

Madeleine Langman: (610) 915-8755

APA article on Bratz: http://www.apa.org/monitor/sep06/dolls.aspx

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