In one of my favorite movies, The Help, the character Aibileen repeatedly affirms the small girl in her charge, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
But many women today behave as if the most important message our girls can receive is along the lines of,
“You is thin. You is skinny. You is pretty.”
There’s something wrong.
We read the studies, see the exposés on the portrayal of women in the media—the dehumanization, the surgically altered yet anorexic models held up as ideal images for our girls—and we get angry. Angry at the media, angry at society with its ridiculous expectations, angry at unattainable standards which cause our girls to doubt themselves and question their worth. Angry when a 10-year-old pinches the inside of her tiny thigh and announces she’s “fat.”
But what if the problem isn’t only the media, what if it’s… us?
Yes—us. You and me. The women in their lives.
What if the voices our daughters, our nieces, our young friends hear on a daily basis are a big part of the problem? Our voices.
I was with a group of moms recently, and the conversation (naturally) turned to the latest diets—what they were doing to lose those stubborn few pounds. I honestly didn’t pay much attention at first. From the time when my own girls were young, I’ve made a point of not talking about “being on a diet” in front of them. I grew up hearing some of the women in my life constantly bemoan the shape of their bodies. Part of the message I internalized was that you could never be thin enough, “fit” enough, anything enough—you simply weren’t allowed to be happy with yourself, even if you looked great. After all, if they—below-average weight women—couldn’t be happy with their bodies, then who could be? When I had my own little girls, I determined to change that. Their growing up would not be accompanied by a running commentary from me of diets, my body issues, or my dissatisfaction.
So, sitting in a roomful of normal-weight women, I heard someone mention a “juice fast” and saw the change come over my teenaged daughter’s face. That look that meant she was thinking, hmm…maybe I could lose 2 or 3 pounds with that. I knew we needed to talk, and we did later—me reiterating to her that a crash diet, a juice diet, a “cleanse,” or a “detox” are not things she needs to subject her young, growing body to, ever. That is not healthy behavior. End of discussion.
But I wondered later…why do we do this? We women decry society’s standards, yet in the next breath describe in detail the austere caveman diet we’ve started. We’re incensed at the airbrushed photos of impossibly thin, seemingly flawless women… and then count up out loud how many carbs we’ve had that day. We end up unwittingly agreeing with the paradigm we claim to hate.
Obviously, we’re conflicted. But I’ve found a few ways that we can be more conscious about what we’re teaching our girls, while helping them learn to appreciate who God created them to be.
Watch your conversation. You can’t wait until your daughters are teens to suddenly change how you talk about yourself or women in general. Careless words can have lasting impact. Listen to yourself objectively and make some changes if needed. Girls are forming their own self-worth and image from a younger age than you think. THEY HEAR YOU. Think about it, how often do you ask things like, “Does this make me look fat?” Do you frequently talk about what you can’t eat, or make disparaging remarks about heavy people? Believe me, the 4-year-old is listening and deciding how she feels about herself NOW. If you need to, confess to them your own struggles (when it’s age-appropriate), and that you’re trying to be better about this yourself.
Value strength, fitness, and other qualities over being “skinny.” If you struggle with weight issues, instead of saying you’re trying to get skinny, simply talk about getting healthier or more fit. Discuss healthier eating vs. verbally analyzing every bite that goes in your mouth. Praise them not only for being pretty, but also for being “strong” or “healthy.” And what about other qualities, like intelligence, bravery, friendliness, or even just plain old-fashioned niceness? We should be affirming more than their physical appearance.
Make meal time and fellowship a priority. Some of my best memories are of family meal times and the huge gatherings my grandmother hosted, complete with a table laden with homemade food. Sadly, siitting down to a good meal and fellowship is becoming a lost art in our country. Whether it’s a take-out meal or from-scratch cooking, aim for a regular family mealtime. Also, studies show that girls whose families have regular meals together have a lower rate of eating disorders.2
Model healthy behaviors. Eat normally. They’re watching. And I’m not talking lettuce cups with a side of ice chips. FOOD. Model a healthy relationship with food. We’ve announced too often that “nothing tastes as good as being thin feels” (a quote attributed to Kate Moss—NOT a role model for my girls) or that “you can never be too thin or too rich.” If you’re in the habit of saying those types of things, even in jest, then please, I beg you…stop it.
If you see a problem, please do something. My girls had a rail-thin friend over once who announced that she had already eaten 500 calories that day and therefore would not be eating dinner. I was floored. When I mentioned it to her mom, she didn’t seem surprised. She should be surprised. Pay attention to your teen girls and their friends. Be mindful of the ones who aren’t eating or seem to avoid food. Talk. As awkward as it seems, talk to their parents, if needed. Girls die from anorexia. If it’s your own daughter, get help. If you think this can’t be a Christian girl’s problem, you’re wrong. There are books and ministries devoted to this. It’s real. Pretending it’s not won’t make it go away. 3
It’s a complicated problem—this issue of body image—and there’s no simple answer. But I can’t help thinking that if Christian women help change some of the message our girls are hearing, it’s a start.
I saw a quote recently on Pinterest, in contrast to all the “Do this to get a flat stomach in 30 days”- type quotes I often see, attributed to J.K. Rowling:
"Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, or cruel? Not to me.”
Not to me, either.
Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women (be warned that there is some material that some may find offensive)