I was a fat teenager. That is a hard thing to be. I didn’t have a healthy perspective about my weight: I saw my body as separate from myself, and I didn’t want to identify with it. This most certainly impacted my self-esteem and, of course, how I expected others to treat me.
While I am thankfully at a different point now than I was in high school — both in terms of my size and my attitude — I still can’t say that I accept my body all the time. And even though I want to love my body — even though I do love my body — sometimes I just don’t.
So my heart goes out to other moms who ask me: “How can I talk to my daughter about body image when I don’t feel great about my own body?”
I am an educator, and I founded the Beautiful Project, a movement to support teen girls to help them connect to their inner voices and maintain a strong sense of self throughout adolescence. I probably hear that question in every parent workshop I facilitate, both in the U.S. and abroad.
And I get it: As I write this, I am looking at my arms, which are starting to get flabby like those of the Hadassah ladies my grandmother used to hang out with. I catch myself feeling inadequate for a moment — the way I once did all the time. I remember how easy it is to fall into that trap of self-judgement and comparison to others, and I try to stop myself.
We live in a world where we are taught that our bodies are our greatest asset; we wield power when we are hot. Not beautiful, but hot — a commodification of the female body that teaches us that our value is measured by our sexiness.
So we compare ourselves to these impossible standards of hotness, and we find ourselves in front of the mirror criticizing our thighs, hair, skin, stomach — you name it.
And then we see our daughters doing the same. Only for them, it’s worse. Under the pervasive influence of social media, where popularity is literally measured by the number of “likes” one receives on a photo, the impulse to try make ourselves as hot as possible is that much more demanding.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to encourage our daughters to develop a healthy body image:
Be honest. We don’t need to hide our insecurities from our daughters. When we show them our own vulnerability to the influence of idealized images, we share with them that we, too, are human beings who struggle in this complicated world. You could look at a magazine ad together and say, “Wow, look at her. She makes me feel so insecure about my body.” Giving voice to our insecurities both takes some of the burden off ourselves, and lets our daughters know that they are not alone.
Remember that we define the culture in which we live. Yes, there are influences telling us how we “should” look — but at the end of the day, we decide who we surround ourselves with and how we talk about ourselves. When I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see, what do I say? There is a really big difference between saying, “Wow, I look so fat,” and “I haven’t been that healthy lately. I think I am going to start working out.” One leaves me with a feeling of being judged; the other empowers me to take steps to grow my confidence.
Talk to your daughter about the images she sees in the media. Ask how they make her feel and what kinds of images she thinks she should use on her own social media profiles. You may want to discuss how self-objectification can sometimes be confused with “empowerment” — messages that encourage us to be hot, sexy, and proud of it. Help your daughter see that, sometimes, media messages teach us that flaunting our sexuality is a form of empowerment. In other words, girls are learning to think that “my choice to be sexy reflects my power and my sense of self.” Address these issues and encourage your daughter to do what is comfortable for her.
Work with your daughter to define what it means to be a woman today. Think about how you want to guide your daughter in the transition from being a girl to being a woman. Think about how you initiate your daughter into understanding her body and her sexuality. A foundation of confidence and security will provide a strong support system for your daughter as she struggles with body image issues — and it will help you with these issues as well. Alongside our daughters, we can embark on a common journey to cultivate our confidence.
Naomi Katz is working to translate her book Beautiful: Being an Empowered Young Woman into Hebrew. Support her crowdfunding campaign here.
This post is part of the Here.Now. series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.