When I read about the mom who put her 8-year-old on a diet, it hammered home to me how broken our national narrative about child weight is. We have no script, and the ones that are being written (like the Vogue approach) should be left on the cutting room floor. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Protecting the Next Generation from The Woman in the Mirror. I don’t have all of the answers either, but I do have some alternatives.
Chapter 11 (Excerpt)
Protecting the Next Generation
“Every time a woman passes a mirror and criticizes herself, there’s a girl watching…”
~ Ms. Gloria Steinem
You want to protect your daughters from having to go through what you have gone through battling negative self-talk. However, you can only do so much, you are but one of many factors that will influence her developing self-concept. Although your maternal instinct would love to be able to, you simply cannot protect your daughters from everything. This does not mean you are powerless. In fact, you can be a powerful role model and help your daughter and other girls around you defend themselves from the lure of negative self-talk.
Helping Your Child Develop Body-Esteem and Self-Esteem
When your daughter uses your eyes as a mirror, what does she see? Does she see a loving mother who appreciates and respects her for who she is and what she has accomplished. Or does she see a reflection of her flaws, “You could lose a few pounds, get a better haircut, dress more neatly, improve those grades”? This is the tightrope of parenting. You want to help our children become all that they can be without criticizing them for who they are.
Developing healthy boundaries between yourself and your child starts the moment they are born. Especially with all of the focus on child obesity and child BMI, mothers are becoming ever more preoccupied with their children’s weight. As children grow, others are bound to make comments about their shape and weight and developmental progress and often these comments are comparative. At five months, my first born was positively roly-poly. We called him the Michelin man (now I would consider that to be fat talk), but we would literally find food in his fat rolls at bath time. This was completely natural. He was a fully breastfed baby and he was not yet mobile. As soon as he started crawling like a madman, he shed his rolls. But comments from outsiders were intrusive. A well-meaning relative who was wary of breastfeeding said, “Maybe you should stop breastfeeding, you can’t tell how much he is getting that way.” Not only was that a bad health recommendation, but it was a suggestion that I was incompetent to feed my child properly, and included an embedded comment that he was too fat for his age. Then later when he went through the lanky toddler phase, the same relative asked, “Are you feeding him enough? He looks like a rail.” Well, indeed he does, he’s supposed to be lanky at this age. People feel compelled to talk about size—especially when it comes in extremes. In neither of these situations, however, was my baby a reflection of me. My baby was a reflection of himself and of normal child development and his eating and activity patterns at the time. But these outsiders tried to make him a reflection of me and my competence as a parent. I had to draw the boundary not only in my own head, but in communicating with them. I thanked them for their concern, indicated that I would take their suggestion under advisement, and then proceeded to ignore everything they said.
Once your children become cognizant of what people are saying and doing around them, your measures to protect them have to become more active. When others make inappropriate comments, you may experience it as judgment and it may be judgmental, but it could also be motivated by the best of intentions or by sheer ignorance. How you respond may vary from culture to culture, with who the person is, and with what role he or she plays in your child’s life, but in most cases it is acceptable to simply say “Thanks for your concern” and not feel that you have to justify yourself or your child. We know, however, that these comments may still get under your skin and make you start to doubt yourself. What can you do to help these comments have less of an impact on you and your child?
Returning to the example of my junior colleague whose mother-in-law always comments on her daughter’s appearance and her son’s personality, she has developed both active and reactive ways to protect her daughter from these comments. First, she tries to beat her mother-in-law to it by being the first one to talk and detailing all of the wonderful non-appearance-related things her daughter has been up to. The first thing her daughter hears is that her mother wants to tell relatives about things other than her appearance. If, however, mother-in-law beats her to it, then she just says thank you and adds all of the other wonderful things about her daughter she wants to convey. That way her daughter still hears what is important to her mother and not just the mother-in-law’s appearance focused compliments.
This year her daughter asked, “Why does grandma always just talk about how I look?” When they are old enough to provide their own commentary, you have to decide at what level to answer your child. My friend just said, “Grandma has always been interested in how people look, but we value all sorts of things about people like their brains, their sense of humor, and how loving they are.” It became a teachable moment when mother and daughter could have a frank discussion about values and relationships. Her very clever daughter responded, “I know appearances aren’t important mom!” validating all of the buffering work she had done for so many years.
Although it is valuable to think deeply about the complex and intertwined psychology of mothers and daughters, what most moms (of all ages) want and need are more practical and here and now solutions for protecting their daughters.
More in The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are. http://womaninthemirrorbook.com