I remember praying when I was pregnant with our youngest child for a daughter. Of course, we prayed for a healthy child and said the gender didn’t matter, but secretly I was hoping for a girl. I was blessed to have two healthy boys with strong Y genes from the day they were born. They were constantly moving, jumping off couches, touching (or tackling) each other and had mastered gross motor skills early on—fine motor skills not so much. I loved my rambunctious little dudes but I longed for some feminine balance in our very masculine home.
The moment my husband leaned over in the delivery room and whispered that our family just added a little girl was a moment I will never forget. We had a daughter. It was a mix of emotion: pure joy and total fear. I knew how to do little boys. They were simple humans: feed them, hug them, let them play, love them, and feed them some more. Easy. But a girl… how would I do it? How would I raise a strong, independent, confident woman in a world that seems to put up road blocks for females and tells them that they are second-class to their boy counterparts? How would I teach her to roar in a world that tells her to meow?
From day one, I set out to raise a young woman not afraid to speak her mind, tell her truth and not be intimidated by other people. In my private practice, all too often I see young girls feeling defeated. I hear mothers concerned that their teenage daughter has “lost her sparkle”, or how a once bubbly little girl now seems depressed and withdrawn. I witness girls who have lost their self-esteem and feel like outer beauty trumps everything, including their loving heart, quick wits, or sense of creativity. I see young women letting go of their dreams because they don’t feel enough, smart enough or capable enough.
I read “Reviving Ophelia” and “Girls will be Girls” to educate myself on how to raise a confident and courageous daughter. I was determined to battle against societies push for pretty and perfect and instead raise strong and secure. I didn’t aim for beautiful, I hoped for balanced and bold. I knew this would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how incredibly hard it would be. It’s a challenge, as the mother of a teenage daughter, I face daily. As much as I want to build her up, society tries to take her down.
The world tells women to lose weight, look nice, and don’t look a day older than you are unless you are 13, in which case you should try and look and act older. We feel judged on appearance and the ideals of perfection are unattainable. Young girls diet and starve themselves to fit into swimsuits or prom dresses and are quick to point out all the negative things they hate about their beautiful bodies. They obsess over being perfect and face their inner critic every day when they look in the mirror. They compare themselves to airbrushed images and pictures that are photoshopped to create “the perfect body”, one that is completely unattainable. They look at social media posts and their flaws feel magnified by the ideal images people share.
Turn on the news today and it’s easy to find a story about a man in power sexually harassing a woman or groping and grabbing their bodies for pleasure. From politicians to news host and the most recent story of a film producer who tried to control women and their potential to be in his Hollywood movies by harassing actresses with aggressive sexual overtures, expectations of sexual favors or “exchanges” and assault. The balance of power is so insulting to women and the concept of no respect for our bodies is mind blowing.
Courageous women are finally speaking up and we are hearing of some confident women who did stand up to him and use their voices to fend him off. For so long society has silenced women and told them to be pretty and quiet. Sadly, that message still looms in many areas today. We live in a society that places a high value on physical appearance and neglects the other elements that really make a woman beautiful. Social media has taken this to a new level.
Teenage girls often feel discouraged, unworthy, and insecure. They connect likes to feeling accepted. They lose confidence in their voice. They believe there is something wrong with themselves and take drastic measures to get attention from boys by doing things like sending naked pictures of their bodies. Instead of celebrating all that makes them unique and different, they perseverate on what they don’t like about themselves and change who they are to become who they think people want them to be. It’s heartbreaking as a therapist and scary as a mother to think this could happen to my girl, the one I prayed so hard for. It hits on my deepest fear that my daughter will somehow grow up believing she is not good enough.
This summer my wonderful neighbor—herself a strong, determined woman and mother—recommended a documentary on Netflix called ‘Embrace’. She briefly explained the concept but didn’t tell me much more. I was intrigued and interested so a few nights later, I found a free hour and settled in to watch it as a woman, mom, and a therapist. Ninety minutes later the message was so clear: Stop hating your body and start living your life. ‘Embrace’ is gut wrenching, eye opening, and tear jerking. If you are the mom of a young daughter, this documentary is a must.
The global issue of body image, associated negative stereotypes and what women can do to improve their physical and mental well-being are the focus of this 2016 documentary by Taryn Brumfitt. ‘Embrace’ begins with her own very personal story of wanting plastic surgery to help her post-baby body, but deciding not to because she wanted to provide a better example to her young daughter. It highlights how body loathing and body shaming have reached epic proportions worldwide. She addresses the damage that is done by the messages sent by society and challenges the idea that our bodies are not ornaments but rather a vehicle to our dreams. Brumfitt then travels around the world to examine body image and discovers it is a global epidemic that is influenced by our fashion and media-driven society. She has since created The Body Image Movement and has become the voice for self-acceptance and redefining the ideals of beauty. It is great example of how one woman can make a difference but together we can change the world.
One part of the documentary I found so powerful was when Brumfitt asked women to describe their bodies and so many of them used the word “disgusting”. It seemed so sad and yet it is so universal. When asking teenage girls in my Northern California office the same question, I have often received the same answer. It’s heart breaking that young girls, with so much to offer this world, would feel so much shame and dislike for themselves. Unfortunately, these same girls become grown women who become mothers and this kind of self-loathing and negative body image can be passed down from generation to generation.
It’s tragic so many women- young and old- have tied their self-worth to the numbers on a scale. In my practice, there is nothing sadder than seeing a bright, talented young person feel ugly or unlovable because she doesn’t meet societies standard of beauty. Media today regularly points out all the ways in which we, as women, don’t fit that standard, reminding us that if we don’t figure out a way to fix our “flaws”, we risk becoming the target of judgment, criticism, comparison, and shame. As a therapist, I work with teenage girls trying to change their thought process, let go of negative self-talk, embrace themselves and focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses.
It’s a hard cycle to break and even harder when their own mothers model this behavior. It is a practice, like yoga, to change our thought process. It is something you do every day to get better. But because of social media, young impressionable girls are never out of the reach of the critical monster that tells them that other people are more liked, have more friends or more accepted by others. Living with that monster creates depression, anxiety, and self-hate and often begins a painful and difficult journey into adulthood.
We have the power to change this cycle and more importantly help our daughters become confident women, but it involves change. And the change starts with us as moms.
How we talk about ourselves will be how our daughters view themselves. If we say we are gross, our daughters will feel gross. If we talk about being fat, our daughters will focus on feeling fat. If we put down other women or judge them based on their physical appearance, our daughters will judge themselves accordingly. But if we practice self-love and acceptance, our daughters will learn self-love and acceptance. If we voice value in all body types, then our daughters will develop appreciation for people’s differences and see beauty all around them. If we model self-respect, integrity and strength, our daughters will respect others, learn that they have value, and know that their words matter.
What if we shared in Brumfitt’s movement and started empowering young girls to see their strengths beyond their faces and their bodies? What if we celebrated them for being different body sizes and encouraged them to be healthy instead of skinny? What if we made them believe that power is not just in beauty but rather in who they are and how they treat other people? What if we truly empowered them to love themselves and see the strengths that lie within each one of them? What if they learned to embrace their bodies and stopped comparing themselves to other people or other people’s digital image? What if we talked less diet and more joy? What if we, as mothers, modeled this to our daughters with love and compassion? What if we embraced ourselves first?
I hope to navigate my daughter through her teenage years with grace and strength. I hope she knows her amazing brain is more powerful than a flat stomach. I hope she sees her body as a precious tool and treats it accordingly. I hope she knows she can do whatever she wants in this world and the only thing that can stop her is her own thought process. I hope she knows I prayed for her, I treasure her and I love her just as she is. I hope she knows that her life is valuable and she has a worth that is not tied to anybody’s opinion of her. I hope that as she grows up she loves herself and her body, flaws, and all. I hope my daughter is fierce, confident, and self-assured. I hope she moves mountains because she thinks she can.
Brumfitt says to her daughter at the end of the documentary what we all should say to our daughters…
“Darling girl, don’t make my mistakes, don’t waste a single day of your life being at war with your body — just embrace it.”