Honestly, it started before she was born–the comments on her projected size and shape from well-meaning people. “Is she measuring big? It looks like she’s measuring big!” I brushed it off back then because you get all sorts of invasive questions or statements about your fetus’s development when you’re expecting: Was it planned? Can you imagine if she gets her dad’s huge head?! OMG, you’re STILL pregnant?
My daughter is now five, and the comments haven’t stopped. If anything they’ve gotten worse and they’re often said in front of my daughter, or even to her. Believe me when I stress this: these seemingly innocent asides are going to start doing irreparable damage to her beautifully confident soul.
According to an often-cited study on body image, a whopping fifty-three percent of American girls report that they are unhappy with their bodies by age thirteen. That’s over half of our daughters who have looked in the mirror and failed to see the beauty in their unique selves; they instead see something that disappoints them. Or, rather, they see something that doesn’t measure up to the version of themselves that our media and society pressures them to be: always picture-perfect, effortlessly graceful, svelte, white, and feminine.
Body image and the media is an important topic, and it should continue as an ongoing conversation until we can widen our currently narrow standard of beauty to include representation of girls with all body shapes, ethnicities, and abilities. But I want to talk about you about what everyday people–you and I and our neighbors and friends–are saying to girls and how it impacts them. Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous comment can plant seeds of doubt and a once confident kid will start to question her value.
She’s So Big Boned
One moment I’m joking with another mom at the bus stop before school about how quickly kids grow out of clothes, and in the next, I’m standing with my mouth open as a third woman steps into the conversation and nods her head at my daughter, “Well, she’s so big-boned.”
Say what?! Did she just “politely” call my Kindergartener fat? My clever daughter, who is standing two feet away making up hand-clapping rhymes with a schoolmate. My brave girl who didn’t flinch when she got a round of shots at her five-year checkup (where her pediatrician also informed us that she’s in the 40th percentile for height and weight). My mini-me firstborn who still carries with her the sweet, soft roundness of a young child. I was stunned and hurt and ready to go all mama bear on a woman who said a careless thing–probably not intending to insult, but doing so anyway.
Kids are constantly growing and changing. Rolly-polly babies morph into reedy children, all elbows and knees. Tiny, underweight tykes transform into solid-statured cherubs. Through it all, we monitor their bodies, especially girls, to make sure they don’t deviate from the double standards we set for them: big boys should play sports, big girls should watch what they eat. What we should be doing is telling all children that their bodies are capable and important.
Or at the very least, keeping our mouths firmly shut if we feel compelled to negatively comment on a child’s stature at the bus stop.
Short Hair is for Boys
Every fall before school starts I take my daughter to get her hair cut. Sometimes she wants a little trim, and sometimes, she wants a big change. I let her make the decision; it’s her hair, after all, and she’s the one who needs to feel happy about it.
After a few seasons of growing it out, she informed her dad and I that she wanted to get it cut into a bob. “That’s great!” I said, but not everyone thought so. A few people expressed dismay at the thought of my daughter’s upcoming haircut. “But you look so pretty when your hair is long!” or “Don’t cut it! Short hair is for boys.”
First, my daughter is still a girl no matter what her hair looks like because that’s how she chooses to identify herself. Second, telling her that she’s pretty with long hair is a slightly nicer way of telling her that you don’t think she’ll be as pretty with short hair.
Short hair, long hair, brown hair, green hair, wavy hair, hair in cornrows, natural hair, processed hair… none of it makes a girl any less than she would be with a different cut or style. But when adults talk about girls in relation to only their prettiness, girls learn that they, and the world around them, should value their physical beauty over the things like strength, cleverness, empathy, and kindness.
Instead of emphasizing what a girl could be if she looked a certain way, we need to support her for choosing to express herself in a way that makes her feel confident.
Always Wear Your Smile
On the third day of school, my daughter came home filled with excitement. She loves her art class and her art teacher is, “So cool, mom.” She chatted away while I fixed her an afternoon snack but something she mentioned stood out to me. She said that when her art teacher explained the classroom rules, he said he wanted students to always wear a smile.
It seems innocent enough but I got to thinking about it. Girls and women are often told to smile; if we aren’t wearing a pleasant-to-look-at expression while in public, people–usually men–feel compelled to comment on it, or ask us to muster up our strength to be a little more cheerful.
But we’re all allowed to express our broad range of emotions–men, women, and kids alike. At dinner my husband and I approached the topic with my 5 year old. I asked her if she always felt like smiling and she said no. So I told her that if someone asked her to smile and she didn’t feel like it, then she can say no. Her smile is special and no one gets to see it when she doesn’t want to share it.
Keep It Positive
Let’s agree to be a little more mindful when we talk to girls. We should praise their efforts, their abilities, their style, and their innovation. We can encourage them to try new things, make friends, and raise their hands in class. Above all, we should keep our judgements on their bodies out of the conversation; they’re always listening.