“As the mother of a five-year-old girl, I struggle a lot with making sure I provide a positive role model for my daughter. I know all too well what it’s like to grow up with self-esteem issues and like many women, I deal with self-image on a daily basis. Because of that, I try very hard to instill confidence in my daughter and am careful not to show weak self-esteem moments in front of her. It’s hard work, raising a girl in today’s society. Though my husband and I make strong efforts to provide positive and age-appropriate imagery, there are many outside influences that our daughter sees and asks about.”
Let me share some examples of conversations and instances we’ve had with our baby girl that show how body image is already of importance in our household, and has been for a while.
TIAS AND TUMMIES
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.”
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NO MAKEUP NECESSARY
Before entering her dance class one night, baby girl asked me if they would be able to wear make-up during their upcoming performance. (It was 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.”
FINE AS WE ARE
One morning, baby girl turned the TV on while I finished getting myself ready. I had forgotten that I left it on the food channel the previous night, which shows infomercials in the early morning. A couple of minutes later, baby girl ran into my room and proceeded 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 waved her hand around my face as she said this.
“Really?” I said. “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 paused, thought, then said, “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.”
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.”
LITTLE GIRLS AND BRAS
“Mommy, you know there are bras for little girls too?”
“Well, not for little girls like you, but older little girls, yeah.”
“Like for 5-year-olds?”(At the time, she was a month away from turning 5 and thought the world was going to drastically change when she did—she would officially be a big girl that could do anything. So she thought.)
“No, not for 5-year-olds. Older girls. Like 10 maybe.”
“Nuh uh! [classmate's name] had a bra on when she was 3!”
“Are you sure it was a bra sweetie? Maybe it was an undershirt, like the ones you sometimes wear.”
“Noooo. It was a bra.”
“How do you know it was a bra? Did you see it?”
“Yes, she showed it to me.”
“Well, baby, even if she did, you’re not going to wear a bra until you need to – when you start growing breasts. That’s when Mommy started wearing a bra.”
“Awww…I wish I could wear a bra.”
“Baby girl, don’t rush it. Enjoy being a 5 year old and not having to worry about that. When the time comes, you’ll wear a bra. Your body knows when it’s supposed to grow and when things are supposed to happen. Don’t rush things, okay?”
FIGHTING FLAWS & MEDIA’S SEXUALIZATION OF GIRLS
These are but a few 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 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.
When she asked about bras, I wondered how my not-even-5-year-old got the idea in her head that she needed a bra. I know she sees them in the stores as we shop for her clothes and nowadays they look really pretty. But, I cringe every time I see a padded beginner’s bra. Why does a 10-year-old just starting to develop and wear a bra need padding?
Companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, Jockey, and others that make padded bras or bikini tops targeted to young girls are not helping parents in this mission. Of course, we can say no to our girls (and I will), but how much easier would it be if the product didn’t exist in the first place?
How about the young model portrayed in adult-like poses in French Vogue? Sure, some call it art, but what message is that sending to our daughters? Is “art” worth the early sexualization of young girls? Can’t kids just be kids?
As parents, how do we overcome such images and 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? It’s exhausting! I don’t pretend to have the answers. I just do the best I can, one day at a time. And hope that my little girl will grow up to be a happy, healthy, strong young woman, with a beautiful self-image.