One Mom’s Tips on How to Raise Daughters to Love Their Bodies
Ellie O’Brien is a yogi and a mother of two. During her free time she enjoys practicing yoga and spending time with her family. She works hard to raise her two daughters to be strong in their own voices, opinions, and physical bodies.
As both a woman and a mother, I am constantly bombarded by messages of what I should look like and how I should behave. These messages, advertisements, and cultural norms have existed for decades in order to make women feel less than. If we ourselves do not feel complete, whole, or worthy, we are more likely to buy new products, invest in new activities, and pay to look like what we see in the media. This become a cycle—the media perpetuates what we “should” look like and we often try our best to adhere to this ideal out of fear of stigma, shame, or judgment. But, I refuse to participate in this cycle. As a mother of two daughters, ages eight and ten, I want to raise my girls to be strong in their own voices. I want them to think positively of themselves and their bodies, and I do the following to make sure my daughters feel strong, confident, and loved in their day-to-day lives.
I build my own resilience to the constant onslaught of negative messaging
Negative body messaging is directed towards everyone, all the time. I can’t stop building my own defenses against this messaging if I am trying to be a role model for my children. I do this by making sure I identify and focus on media that is positive or that provides some sort of humor around body and beauty. Right now, Beauty Redefined, Celeste Barber, Jessamyn Stanley, Serena Williams, and Lizzo are a few of my favorite people preaching empowerment and body-acceptance. While these advocates aren’t always for my kids (or even appropriate for them, generally) they are for me.
I speak openly about media messaging so my daughters understand what is and what is not true
Recently, my youngest daughter was referred to a dermatologist for a minor surgery. When we went to the appointment, a floor-to-ceiling poster promoting cosmetic body sculpting treatments greeted us. The message on the enormous poster featured an illustration showing a woman’s abdomen shrinking as the result of a first yoga class, then salads, and finally (the “power through” step), cosmetic procedure.
I practice yoga regularly. I teach my kids about healthy foods and vegetables. And, if I had walked through that lobby and let my daughter absorb that message, she may have concluded that the purpose of my yoga and vegetables is to become thin, and that my motivation is to become thin. If she thought that was my motivation, then she’d likely think it should be hers, too. So, we stopped. I let her read the advertisement and then I asked her what she thought. Does she think mom exercises for a small body or a healthy body? Does she think there are valuable reasons to nourish our bodies with vitamins and minerals that don’t have to do with our size? I wanted to be clear with her about my motivation, so I explained to her that I want to be healthy and strong. I also wanted to be clear with her about what the poster wanted her to think. I told her the poster was trying to tell her one size is better than the other, and that the goal was to make money by getting her to believe it and buy what the company was selling.
We had a chance to further explore that concept in the clinic room where more advertisements showed before and after photos of treatment patients. We took time to ask questions about the after images. Did that new body shape make the person kinder? Smarter? Happier? Healthier? Funnier? More caring? No. Then I asked if we should care about what shape our body was if it didn’t change all of those important qualities in us. I also made sure to follow up with the doctor who referred us to let him know I was disappointed to take my child into that environment, and that he might want to consider being more selective with his pediatric patients in the future.
I openly practice body positivity in my own home
I’ve always had an “open door” policy in my home and regularly change my clothes or get ready for a shower in front of my kids. So, they’ve seen me naked and have never shied away from questions. My youngest loves to giggle when she sees my butt and how it jiggles. We even made a game out of it. Before I step into the shower, I shake my hips and she goes wild laughing. Most recently, she commented that my, “butt has dents in it.” If I wasn’t positive about my own body, I would have hushed her and hid my body. But instead, I told her, “Yep! And, if I do this (clench my butt cheeks), I get even more!” After a few laughs, my whole family was comparing our cellulite.
My children are bound to hear a million messages about zapping away cellulite and desiring smooth skin. My hope is that when they do, they will remember how confident their own mom is with her body and how loved they felt when they discovered their own “dents.” It also isn’t lost on me that they have inherited my body. They are my children, after all. If I don’t love my own body, and if I don’t make it known to them, what are they going to think of themselves? I love them dearly, and if I want them to love themselves, then I have to love the genes that created them.
I talk about the strength of our bodies
Boys receive constant messages about their strength. Walk through a toddler boys’ clothing aisle and you’ll inevitably find a t-shirt with messages about big muscles. This messaging about being strong shouldn’t just be for boys, it should be for everyone!
At a food shelf where my daughters and I volunteer with several of their elementary school classmates and their parents (mostly mothers), I took a chance to demonstrate that girls can be just as strong. The organizers were looking for people to carry filled grocery bags to the recipients’ vehicles, so they asked the group for some “big, strong boys” to help. The oldest boy in the group was 11 and the boxes were 40 pounds each. There were also several adult women in the group. I stood there, a foot taller and with many more pounds of muscle on my body than any of these “strong boys,” and I still wasn’t the obvious choice. The organizer was feeding into the message that boys are stronger. What was that telling my daughters who were standing next to me? That even as a grown woman, boys are stronger. If that’s true, then what good is their body? This message contributes to the thought that women’s bodies are for appearance and not function, and creates an environment that thinness and beauty are the most important thing about women. So for me, part of fighting negative messaging about body shape and size is to promote messages about our own strength. (By the way, I took the opportunity to chime in, “How about the grown women carry the boxes?” to the organizer).
Another game I like to play while waiting for my kids to brush their teeth is “guess how many pushups mom can do in the hallway while you brush your teeth.” I also don’t ask their dad to do things for me that my own body is capable of doing. I lift heavy things and I ask my daughters to do it too—my ten-year-old and I can move a couch as well as any two men could. When my daughters help, I make sure to tell them how nice it is to have a strong girl in the house to help me. Last year, at our family camp, they took the stage to “roast” me with a “look how strong I am” skit. That was when I knew the message had sunk in!
My final thoughts are this:
I refuse to let my daughters think advertisements are always true. I tell them they are strong and capable. I make sure they see me model body-acceptance. I don’t talk about diets. I don’t speak negatively about myself or how I look. I don’t say clothes look bad on my body. I don’t speak badly about another person’s size or shape or weight. I tell them that all bodies have value and that all people are important, regardless of what they look like.