Model or Role Model? Body image lessons for us and our Daughters
In our house, I sometimes feel like Mrs Large, the elephant mother in the children’s books by Jill Murphy. She wants Five Minutes’ Peace to enjoy a bath but finds herself, after an array of demands on her attention, sharing it with her three children.
Similarly, I can’t remember the time I showered, went to the loo or got dressed without an audience. Therefore, it goes almost without saying that my children have seen my body in all its natural glory. They have also seen me apply makeup, add jewellery and swap my glasses for contact lenses. I’m sure all these alterations to my appearance are communicating something to them. In fact, I know this because we constantly hear in the media how a mother’s body image impacts on that of her children.
I am reluctant to place all the responsibility of this on mothers and remind myself that these are not the only influences children are exposed to. I never had to navigate social media as a teenager, or even fathom the idea of an online tutorial for makeup application, but I can see how the current climate influences body image. My concern as a parent is the role I play in helping my daughters to feel confident with their bodies.
That confidence has to start with me. I am their first role model. The first adult woman they have seen without clothes. When they try on my bras, shoes, jewellery, it’s hilarious but also flattering. I think many young daughters want to look like their mothers. I know I did. And because I’m nature’s best guess of how they’ll most likely end up looking, I’d like them to be confident about that appearance before they’re even aware they’ve reached it.
The difficulty, well one of them, is the timing. Our children are looking at us as these beautiful idols at the exact time in our lives when many of us feel the least confident in our bodies. Trying to foster a new sense of our own body image after having children is challenging enough without the responsibility that we should be promoting its qualities. I’m not sure what the answer is but I think a good place to start is by not being judgmental of our appearance or other people’s. The more emphasis we place on how we look, the more of an issue it becomes. The Mental Health Foundation’s report into body image identifies that both body satisfaction and dissatisfaction are linked to a person’s quality of life and overall wellbeing.
Obviously, our children don’t grow up to be exact physical replicas of us and therefore it’s important to build confidence in their individual features. We don’t all look the same and it would be a less interesting world if we did.
As a mother of identical twins, this may sound like an odd statement to make but even if my girls look the same to a stranger, they’re not identical to those who know them. Encouraging children to see that their image is constructed from more than just what’s on the surface is something valuable not just to identical twins.
There is a lot of debate about whether we should tell our daughters they’re beautiful. I appreciate fully that if we tell girls that their identity and self-worth is built on appearances, we are doing them an injustice. We shouldn’t value appearance over skills or intellect and it’s often hard to get this message out when female representation is limited in areas where intellectual achievement is celebrated. But we also don’t want them seeking approval of their looks from dubious sources simply because no one at home ever did.
There’s a balance to strike. We should be able to tell our daughters they are beautiful because they are. Every single one of them. But that’s not all we should tell them.
Our opinions and views are the first ones our children learn to trust. Tell your children they are beautiful, and kind, and talented, and clever, and loved. To them, you are also all these things. Find confidence in that and project it.
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