I'm certain that the label "tween" is relatively new and a term that allows marketers to target our little girls with products and strategies at ever increasing maturity levels.
I feel a tiny little panic attack beginning inside me. I have not felt this anxious about what lies before me since I was pregnant with the two of them. I was willing to pretend my daughters might be little forever until a reader sent this email:
OK, I’m curious about something. Why do so many “tweens” and adolescents do the “I’m so fat” thing? I hear it from young girls all the time! I have a 13-year-old niece, skinny as a rail, who thinks she’s fat. I know there are lots of psychological dimensions to this, but I’m especially curious if girls who are physically fit and active resort to that mentality as well-or does having a fit, healthy body as a teen help to combat that crap? Have your own girls expressed this? Do you think there’s less of that among teen girls who are physically active—do they have healthier body images overall?It became clear I could not raise my daughters in a bubble. Gratefully, my daughters have never expressed to me any inkling that they are displeased with their body. In addition they have friends of all shapes and, as far as I know, they don't give it a second thought. But. But I know what's coming. Puberty is coming. It would be unrealistic to think a girl could breeze through puberty blissfully unaware of the changes taking place to her body.
When puberty comes, all I can hope for is that I've laid the right foundation. It reminds me of the parenting information that says the toddler brain is completely wired and set by the time they're two or three. What's done is done, so you might as well sit back and stop stressing about what else you can do as a parent.
I've known from the get-go that I want my children to grow up with a healthy body image. With that in mind I've focused on what their body can do, not what their body looks like, and refrained from voicing any disparaging remarks about my own body.
But what do I know?
So I asked a few experts in the field.
I sent the question on to Leslie Goldman. She is a body image expert and author of Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-imaging the "Perfect" Body. She recently posted about what she hopes for her daughter, on her blog Health Breaks Loose.
Here's what Leslie said:
Girls in our society are taught to hate their bodies - they learn it from TV, commercials, magazines, their parents, gyms, diet ads, coaches, etc. "I'm so fat!" is just something we are expected to say, starting at a very young age. My mom is a retired Jewish preschool teacher and as recently as a few years ago, she had 3-year-olds asking for baby carrots and diet coke instead of juice and challah. THREE YEARS OLD. Once they're a bit older, maybe in middle and high school, complaining about their weight is a way to fit in, to seem "normal," and they truly do think they're fat on some level, even if they're rail-thin. They may be seeking reassurance that they are loved just as they are. When we're older and complain about our weight, it's often a security blanket type of thing, being done to distract ourselves from more significant issues. Like they say, eating disorders aren't really about food, just like rape isn't about sex. It's about control. It's a lot easier to focus on calories burned and hours on the stair master logged than issues like graduation, divorce, job loss, infertility, sickness or whatever other real issues are happening.
I suppose some girls who are quite fit from athletic involvement might have a leg up because a) sports participation builds self-esteem and b) they get to see how strong and capable their bodies are on a regular basis. But many girls in sports are under pressure to keep a certain weight (gymnasts, swimmers, rowers, dancers) and may be berated by coaches, subjected to surprise weigh-ins, etc, making them even MORE prone to eating disorders.
Well, that left me completely depressed. I want to believe that raising my daughters to appreciate their bodies for that they can do and growing up active might in some way give them better odds. But maybe that approach is as effective as classical music piped into the womb for increasing IQ scores.
Next I reached out to Dara Chadwick, award-winning author and advocate for women and girls. The title of her book is, You'd Be So Pretty If... : Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies -- Even When We Don't Love Our Own.
I’ll say (and I’m speaking anecdotally, of course) that in researching my book, I came across two factors that tend to be at play. The first, and most obvious, is the enormous pressure on girls to be smaller and smaller. For example, an active girl may be physically fit and be all muscle, but if her favorite celebrity wears a size 2 or her best friend wears a size 0 while she’s in a size 6 or 8, she may – consciously or not – think that means she’s “fatter” than her friend. It’s about the comparison that takes place in her mind. Many physically active girls aren’t thinking about lean muscle mass, body fat ratio and physical fitness level – measures of healthy body composition and fitness. At a certain age and in a certain peer group, it’s all about size and perception. Think of it this way: A 14-year-old female athlete shopping at the mall with her friends can face a difficult psychological hurdle if she has to look on a different rack than the rest of the friends she’s with – no matter how fit or athletic she is. There are also, as you know, certain physical activities and sports where appearance fuels the issue (think: dance, gymnastics, etc.). A gymnast or dancer may be incredibly active and fit, but may feel pressure to maintain a certain size that isn’t necessarily natural for her body.
The second factor at play is female culture itself. To some degree, girls have been socialized to say “I’m so fat” as a bonding tool. Let’s face it, even as an adult, if you were out with a group of women who were all pointing out their flaws and complaining about their bodies, would you say, “Since I’ve been working out, my body looks awesome. My butt is amazing”? I’m thinking probably not. At best, you might say, “I feel really great since I’ve been working out” or “I’ve toned up a lot and think I look better than I have in years.” And maybe you’d feel awkward or uncomfortable saying that (OK, maybe you wouldn’t, but many women would). [NOTE FROM KARA: I'd like for women to get to a place where we don't feel awkward or uncomfortable expressing something positive about our bodies, so will you all join me here?] Whether we do it consciously or not, it is far less socially acceptable for women to speak well about their bodies or to compliment themselves. Girls feel that, too. And it’s a way to bond – if the peer group says, “let’s just drink Diet Coke today and not each lunch because we’re going to try to lose weight together,” is the girl who doesn’t necessarily think she’s fat going to say, “OK, I’m going to go get in the sandwich line by myself”? My guess is no. Sometimes, saying, “I’m so fat” is a way to fit in with the group. As for YOUR question about whether a mom with a healthy body image makes adolescence easier for her daughter, I’m going to offer a qualified yes.
Moms can’t take away the pressure girls feel from the outside, but we can offer a release valve for that pressure. We can also begin to change the culture and social expectations a bit – if a mom speaks positively about her own body and the bodies of other women in their lives, we teach our girls that it IS possible to like who you are and to feel good about your body. We teach them that we don’t have to run other women down to feel better about ourselves. Through our own healthy eating and exercise habits, we teach them that we have value and that taking care of the bodies we have – no matter what their size – is important and should be a priority. And by being open to talking and listening about the pressures they feel – without lecturing or telling them how they should feel – we can be a safe place for dealing with those peer group pressures I mentioned above. So, yes, I do think a mom who feels good about her own body can help her daughter have a happier adolescence.
Big caveat: A mom who engages in unhealthy behaviors to keep her own body looking a certain way and encourages her daughter to do the same is not a healthy role model.I have to remain hopeful. Maybe we can't control what our daughters encounter outside the home, but we can make sure we send them out in this body-dismorphic world having emphasized healthy attitudes about our own body and instilled enough confidence in their own. It's about walk the talk; show don't tell. In my own home we will continue to focus on being an active family; I'll keep serving healthy food; I will be kind to my own body.
The only other thing left to do is celebrate my daughters' ninth birthday. I sure do love who they've become, and reminding myself of that makes me eager--not anxious--about mothering them into their tweens and beyond.