The realization hit me a few weeks postpartum. I was holding my newborn daughter and looking at myself in the mirror with disgust. “Ugh, I look awful,” I said, examining the 15 pounds of extra, flabby skin around my midsection. It was hardly the first time I had criticized my appearance in the mirror (nor was it the last), but this time was different.
This time, a sense of overwhelming dread hit me as I finished my thought and immediately caught my daughter’s eyes. While far too young to understand what I had said, it was at that moment that I realized the potential for passing along my unrealistic beauty standards to my daughter. And that scared the sh*t out of me.
The thought of her standing in front of a mirror years from now and saying those same things about herself hit me, and the mental image made me feel physically ill. While I’ve lived years as my own worst enemy, the thought of my daughter having to endure the same was unimaginable.
Something had to change. While I knew I couldn’t undo the work that years of low self-esteem and unrealistic societal beauty ideals had done to me, I also knew that this wasn’t something I could stand passing along to my kid.
So, I spoke with Dr. Courtney Crisp, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in self-esteem and treating eating disorders. She shared advice on how parents can best speak with daughters — especially preteens and teenagers — about unrealistic beauty standards.
Start the conversation early.
In my mind, there really is no time that’s too early to start having conversations about self-esteem and body positivity. From a young age, this can be as simple as speaking kindly about yourself in front of your children and setting a good example of what it means to love yourself and feel beautiful.
But there’s no doubt that the conversation gets more challenging as children get older and social media and society become more of a factor. That’s why Dr. Crisp recommends having those conversations and open discussions.
“Point out where society profits off of their insecurities. Talk about that ad on Instagram that makes them feel bad about themselves. What are they trying to sell them to ‘fix’ that insecurity?” says Dr. Crisp.
Keeping the dialogue open may not always be met with a kind reception (we are talking about preteens and teenagers, after all). However, it’s still a meaningful conversation to continue to have, and one they should know the door is always open for.
Speak to what the body can do instead of what it looks like.
It can be easy to look in the mirror and point out X, Y, and Z things that you don’t like. It’s a lot harder to take the time to thank your body for all that it does. I know this is something I struggled with immediately after giving birth. I’d look in the mirror feeling repulsed by my sagging belly over my C-section scar instead of what I should have felt, which was being in awe at all my body had been through to get my daughter in the world.
As your children grow up, Dr. Crisp stresses the importance of keeping the focus on what bodies can do versus their appearance.
“Focus on what their bodies can do, not what they look like. It is hard to feel good about yourself when you are constantly assessing and picking yourself apart,” she explains, continuing. “Studies also show that engaging in self-objectification often results in poorer body image. My patients and I work together to brainstorm what their body does for them in terms of function. Do they appreciate their hands for playing instruments? Their legs for running?”
When it comes to body image, Dr. Crisp also emphasizes the need to “unpack internalized fatphobia.” That means examining why we as a society have internalized that a thin body type is the ideal and then asking if these beliefs are serving us.
“These beliefs may include things like ‘only thin people can be considered healthy,’ ‘fat people are lazy,’ ‘people in larger bodies cannot be fashionable or desirable,’ etc. Typically, people can recognize that these beliefs come from the media or from somewhere external. They then can recognize that these beliefs are something that they may not believe in themselves and want to challenge.”
Having these conversations is not only freeing but also helps to recognize that the “ideal” beauty standard is not something we need to continue believing in or perpetuating. Find your own idea of what beauty is, and allow yourself to feel empowered in that instead.
Be intentional when it comes to social media.
As a ’90s baby millennial, I cannot imagine being a teen today. While social media was a part of my teenage years, its impact on my life wasn’t felt nearly as much during those crucial ages as it is today.
The effect of young girls seeing filtered models and celebrities thrown at them every which way is something I cannot fully comprehend. To say that social media has affected the self-esteem and body image of young boys and girls would be the understatement of the century.
With social media, some parents choose to ban it or set age limits, while others set strict rules about its usage. If you allow your children to use social media, Dr. Crisp recommends “creating intentionality” with it, with an emphasis on the positive side of social media.
“Social media can be a wonderful source of body-positive and body-neutral content. It can also be incredibly toxic and negative,” Dr. Crisp elaborates. “It is important to be intentional about how teens and preteens are in social media spaces.”
And she’s right: You can find body-positive spaces and communities on social media. But these places must be sought out and aren’t exactly what you’ll find put in front of you by the Instagram or TikTok algorithm. So, if you do let your kids use social media, it’s crucial to set out with the intentionality of finding positive communities and limiting usage to these less toxic spaces instead.
Never forget that you are a role model.
After so many years of talking down about myself, it’s a shock to the system to realize someone in my life could now internalize all of my issues. That’s why, underscores Dr. Crisp, it’s essential to set a positive example early for kids on how to love yourself.
“Be a good role model with your own body talk and food talk. This does not mean you have to be perfect. But kids absorb everything, and they will absorb if you comment on your own bodies, other people’s bodies, or their food. Try to model a balanced relationship with food and your body as much as you can,” Dr. Crisp says.
She adds, “[Not commenting on yourself or other people’s bodies] is so much easier said than done, but the more you can come to peace about your own body, the better [that] you will be able to support your teen through their own body image journey.”
When it comes to my own relationship with myself and my body and unpacking the unrealistic beauty standards I have been raised and grown up with, I’d say I’m a work in progress. However, that won’t stop me from trying everything in my power to stop my daughter from growing up with the same self-esteem issues. And my hope is that, along the way, I can learn to be a little kinder to myself as well.