Raising Beautiful Girls: Conversations of Body Image

by Melanie Edwards on July 15, 2011 · 19 comments

in Baby Girl, Parenting

Young Girl

A few months ago, one of my aunts was visiting from out of town. She was staying at my mami’s house and they were heading out for a day at a local park since they were bored with staying home. I took the opportunity to tag along so baby girl could have some fun at the park and get to know her Tía better.

Before we left, my Tía changed her clothes, and upon her return from the bedroom, my daughter noticed. Tía asked her, “How do I look?” to which my girl responded, “Good!” My Tía proceeded to pat her belly in that manner we adults often do when we’re indicating we need to lose weight. But, my daughter stared at her blankly. I spoke up and let my aunt know that baby girl had no concept of what she meant. “We don’t really point out things like that at home. She has no clue what you mean by that.”

Ballet dancers on stage

Before entering her dance class last night, baby girl asked me if they would be able to wear make-up during their upcoming performance. (It’s going to be her first showcase since she started taking lessons.) I told her that no, she would not be able to wear make-up and that make-up is not something little girls wear.

At the end of the dance class, her instructor turned towards the parents and said, “I’m not a believer of putting make-up on babies, so for Saturday’s showcase, there’s no need to put make-up on your girls. They’re beautiful just as they are. You can just leave that stuff for the other studio.”

Little girl sitting under trees

This morning, baby girl turned the TV on while I finished getting myself ready. I had forgotten that I left it on the food channel last night, which shows infomercials in the early morning. A couple of minutes later, baby girl runs into my room and proceeds to explain to me:

Mommy, this man found this melon and they take the melon and make it into some type of cream you can then use to make yourself look younger and pretty!” She waves her hand around my face as she says this.

Really?” I say. “And looking young is what makes you pretty? Would I not be pretty if I looked older?”

Oh no mami! You always look pretty.”

Thank you baby. So, why do we need to look younger, then? We’re fine the way we are, aren’t we?”

A bit puzzled, she pauses, thinks, then says, “Yeah!”

Those people on TV are trying to trick people into thinking they don’t look pretty and thinking they need to look younger so that they can then buy what they’re selling.”

Yeah, because they want more money!”

That’s right. They are selling something and they want people to buy it. So, they make people think they really need it and trick them into thinking it will help them be better. But, that’s not what makes people pretty, mama.”

Make-up?”

Feeling incredibly hypocritical, I said, “Make-up doesn’t make you pretty either, sweetie. It’s just something older women wear when they want to dress up and look a little different. But, it doesn’t make them pretty. In fact, if you wear too much make-up, it can make you look bad and takes away from what you really look like.”

Ok mommy.”

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These are some examples of the daily struggle that it is to raise a girl. Regardless of how much emphasis you put on positive self and body image, or if you purposely refrain from showing negative examples (such as patting your belly or other areas of fat), the images make their way into your household and child’s mind in one way or another. Whether it’s another family member, TV, or some other external influence, you still end up having to curb the perceptions created.

When my Tía did what she did, she didn’t think of how her actions would be perceived. She did what many of us do. She pointed out a flaw in her body.

When baby girl’s dance instructor said what he said, I felt like applauding. This was one of the reasons we chose that dance school, because when we researched other ones in the area, many had photos of students in fancy outfits and wearing make-up on the homepage of their website. For us, that was an immediate turn-off. We wanted her to learn the art of dance and provide her with an outlet for socialization besides preschool. We did not want her to be part of a spectacle.

When I explained to my girl that make-up is not what makes you pretty, I had trouble coming up with the right words as to why women (myself included) do wear it. Because, let’s face it, when we put make-up on, we do in fact “feel” prettier.

So, as parents, how do we overcome these perceptions and continue to provide positive examples for our children? How can we curb the outside influences? And as women, how do we avoid sending mixed messages by telling our girls one thing, yet doing another?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria Amelia Bazdekis July 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm

I have three daughters and consider all my comments around dressing, appearance and their bodies very carefully. I try to talk about being healthy not being thin. In fact, in the case of one of my daughters – my youngest – we are actually trying to put weight on her. Focusing on health is key.

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Carrie July 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Mel, our daughters are lucky. They aren’t going to hear too much about being flacas or gordas or feas or whatever.

I talk to my daughter about being strong and healthy. Always. Never about losing weight. She just worked out with me today, downstairs with DVDs. I lifted weights, she kind of did.

This topic is why we did the body image series on the Tiki Tiki Blog: http://tikitikiblog.com/accepting-the-self-latinas-on-body-image/

Keep on, keeping on!

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Becca Bernstein July 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm

This is something I have yet to tackle with my own daughter. But I know the day is coming soon as I can’t protect her from everyday comments from others. It’s a shame that we know the root begins internally and yet it’s so innate we have trouble editing it.

Love the teacher’s response to make up!

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Carla July 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I am very conscious with my daughters to use words that celebrate and put emphasis on the beauty of our bodies. I make it a point to mention that mami & papi exercise to be strong and healthy. I mention that the food we eat is important to keeping us healthy. I don’t wear make-up on a daily basis but my daughters are fascinated when there’s a special occasion and I get all dolled up. They watch in amazement. It’s fascinating really their wonder at me painting my face, LOL. They know it’s not an everyday thing just a little something extra here and there. It’s a big job we’ve got raising girls =) And it’s lovely to see mamis like you and the other wonderful Latinas I’ve gotten to know online that are doing such a wonderful job!

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Angelica Perez July 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm

This is such an important topic of discussion — hugely important.  You are so right, Melanie, we can so easily influence (verbally and non-verbally) how our girls understand and define “beautiful.”  We do need to be really cautious, and make sure we curb the outside influence.  I often find my own mother making comments that are racist, although she has no idea that she is doing so.  I find myself constantly correcting her, especially in front of my kids, so that they don’t take on those values.

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Lorraine C. Ladish July 17, 2011 at 1:47 am

I posted on your facebook, but I´ll do it here too. I had an eating disorder that started when I was 16 and lasted way too long. It was the subject of my first book Me Siento Gorda (I Feel Fat). I had kids later in life and now I model a positive self image. Even when my kids say “Mommy, you are getting wrinkles”, I explain I´m 47 and it´s normal to get wrinkles and it´s ok. That when I´m older I will have more wrinkles and grey hair and that will be ok too. I also have friends and family who complain about their appearance in front of my kids but fortunately my girls, now 7 and 10, have noticed that one of my friends is extremely thin, and pointed it out as something strange and unhealthy looking. I don´t know if I will be able to prevent them from going through what I did, but I´m sure as heck trying. Funny thing is I´ve learned to love my body now that it´s starting to age. I wish I had felt that way when I was younger. I grew up watching the women in my family go on crazy diets .. and .. my girls will not see that. I cross my fingers. 

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Presley's Pantry July 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

I think about the way my mom raised me. she didn’t really shield me from the influence of the outside world, she just always reinforced the fact that being kind was king. Outside apperances were just that, and had no substance or would fade giving them no importance. She use to say “just be nice because that is what matters most.” Everything else is secondary. 

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Katja Presnal July 17, 2011 at 11:42 pm

What a wonderful post and an important topic! My daughters are 9 and 11 and we talk about the same issues all the time. 

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Liz C. July 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Beautiful post, Melanie!  I hope and pray that my nena is confident with her self image.  I think she is the most prettiest girl and yet whenever anyone picks her up, they first thing they say “She’s SO heavy!”  I don’t think this does anything to her, but this is one topic I have to concentrate more on, don’t I?  Thank you!

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modernmami June 8, 2012 at 12:07 am

Liz, this makes me so sad that the first thing people say is she’s heavy! I really hope she doesn’t grow up hearing this so much she then considers herself to be “heavy”, you know? Your girl is beautiful! You keep telling her so and concentrate on being healthy and strong, nothing more.

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Monica July 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

This is such an incredible post, Mel. How terribly important it is for us to raise our daughters with a positive self-image. I’m thankful that my daughter is not at a point where she cares much about things like that – yet!! But I am so glad to have articles like this to help me know what to say when that time comes.

Thank you, Melanie!

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Anonymous July 31, 2011 at 2:07 am

This is fantastic. Bravo on raising a girl like this.

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Heather Escobar August 7, 2011 at 12:37 am

Such a thoughtful piece on a very important topic. Thank you for writing this.

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Jennifer September 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I don’t have any girls, but I do like to try and treat my friend’s girls like they are more than their outsides. It can be so hard though, I love the bright colors and personality some of them put into their outfits! I have struggled with body image most of my life, being a plus sized person with an anorexic mom is hard to balance. I am glad there are moms who are making the effort to teach their daughters they are beautiful no matter how they look.

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unknownmami November 26, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Beautiful, thoughtful post. Here’s my take on make-up: We should use it to celebrate our beauty, not cover our perceived flaws. That’s how I feel about adults wearing it. I don’t like the idea of children wearing it.

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modernmami November 27, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Thanks! It’s hard for me to explain make-up to her without seeming hypocritical. Even if I say I’m using it to celebrate my beauty, then how do I explain why she can’t use it, you know?

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JMH December 20, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Some things are for grownups. Children get that, don’t worry.
They get to paint their faces sometimes, and to them it’s the same thing.

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karen June 2, 2012 at 1:15 am

Just stumbledupon this piece. We have those same conversations here in our house. One of my daughters has a friend who’s parents are both very fit and the woman is slender, but their talk is constantly on diet and fat foods, which surprisingly influenced my child, and at the time she was only 7 and they’d only maybe had two playdates! I believe most of the conversations were being held at the school at lunch. This couple’s child is skinny as a pin, most likely by nature, but it seems sad that she is socialised to worry.

But I believe with all my heart that the more candid we are about the goals of advertisers, the content of the products, and how it wears down our belief in ourselves and our natural instincts, the better off our kids are and, hopefully, other children who may enter into debate as they grow older.

Our children are currently homeschooled, so the playground chatter is less of an issue than it had been in influencing them, but we still keep up with this child and others, which makes for some great post-play conversations.

ps. I love your dance teacher too!!!

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Barbie Bieber and Beyond October 29, 2013 at 11:34 pm

This is great, I try to teach my 4 girls exactly the same thing

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