The Cosmic Dancer posted a quote from Sarah Koppelkam about how we should talk to our daughters about their bodies, and it has been shared more than 100,000 times. A friend posted it, I read it, I thought about it, I liked it, I thought about it some more, and I started to have some concerns.
The first line of the quote is, “How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works,” and when I first read it, I thought, “Well, that makes sense,” but after I thought about it more, and especially when I tried to picture how that would look in real life, it started to make less sense.
First, let me be clear about what I’m not trying to do. I’m not one of those people who wants to spend my days searching for the Internet so I can complain about what other people write (and I don’t live my life looking for people to do obnoxious things to write about either, that just sometimes falls into my lap). I think women bloggers especially end up in a position where they just can’t win, someone always finds something to criticize, and I don’t want any part of that.
I agree with much of what the article says. Rather than telling our daughters their bodies look “amazing” or something similar, saying instead, “You look so healthy!” or “You look so strong!” would be much better, or, as the article suggests, instead focusing on how great she did on her geometry or Latin test. There are many other points worth passing along – teaching our daughters to love themselves (including their bodies) by loving ourselves, not complaining about our weight or thighs or whatever it is, and not commenting about what other women look like. Teaching our daughters to cook kale and chocolate cake and to love being outside. Yes! Yes! Wonderful! Let’s do it!
What we look like should not be the focus of our lives, and I can say it certainly is not the focus of ours. Still, I don’t think not talking about our bodies is the solution. Then again, I rarely think not talking about something is the best solution (unless it involves talking to a sociopath – then don’t bother, and if you absolutely have to communicate, always always always do it in writing and copy your lawyer).
By all means, let’s focus on things that matter more than what our daughters look like. Let’s talk about their many abilities and gifts, their kindness, their souls. I hope that makes up 95% of what we talk about with our daughters, when we talk with our daughters about our daughters, which is hopefully about 20% of what we talk about with our daughters overall (we want to raise self-aware and strong daughters, not self-obsessed narcissists, right?). Maybe talking about how our bodies work could be another 2%, maybe even 3 or 4%, but somewhere in there, somewhere, we have to talk about what our bodies look like.
How could I say such a thing? And I call myself a feminist? Pssssh.
Well, here this is the thing about not talking about something – it becomes something we purposefully don’t talk about, and that sends a confusing message. Our bodies are more than just purely functional. That’s an important point. We talk about a beautiful bird, or a beautiful tree, a beautiful baby, a beautiful piece of property. Why wouldn’t we tell our daughters that they are also beautiful? Absolutely focus on her inner beauty, please, please, please, but also, take just one second, every once in a while, to tell her you think she is beautiful.
I know, I don’t give advice, except, sometimes, I do.
The first time she hears it should not be at a frat party, for one thing. For another, each of our daughters, or at least each of my daughters, is likely to have an extremely awkward phase, complete with braces, pimples, dandruff, probably glasses. Who knows what else. That time is hard, I remember, even though it was long ago, and I really believe explaining to our daughters that they are still beautiful in our eyes, that can mean something.
Maybe she’ll slam the door in my face. What do I know, my kids still want to nap with me and hug me in public? But I plan to try. I will dig out some photographs from when I was that age (photos even my beloved grandmother describes as not very flattering), and I will talk about what it felt like when I was in her place. I will listen when she tells me how she feels, what she worries about, what she likes, what she doesn’t like.
I will explain that I am her mother, and I will never be objective about her (how could I be and why would I want to be?), and I will insist that she is one of the two most beautiful girls I have ever seen, and she will believe me, because she knows I never lie to her, because I don’t, and she will know that, one person in this world, thinks she is absolutely perfect just the way she is.
I will explain that every body goes through a transition and it’s part of becoming a grown up and every change has some purpose (after I buy a very thorough textbook). I will tell her what a beautiful baby she was, and what a beautiful child, and I will explain why she is even more beautiful right now.
When she is a grown up, I will tell her she’s beautiful, and to me, she always will be. It’s not a bad thing for her to know that. We will have a glass of wine and I will tell her again that I thought she was the most beautiful teenage girl in the world (tied with her sister), and I will mean every word.
What will I say if she ends up having small breasts like me, or not growing as tall as her friends, or with a nose she thinks is too large, or with weird knee caps? I will tell her that my tiny breasts nourished four babies, and I have a great stepladder. I will tell her I can still sometimes shop for my sneakers in the kids’ department and I spend the extra money on shoes for her (that’s how she got her first pair of Hunter boots). I will tell her it can be frustrating in crowds, but it’s also a special thing – I could wear high heels to be as tall as my friends, but they can’t wear special shoes to be my size. I may even told her what her great-great-grandmother used to say, “Good things come in small packages.” I will tell her sometimes large noses give a face character, and when she was a baby it was her favorite place to be kissed, and I will her that one day her own children might love to kiss her nose, or pull on it (she did both to mine). I’m not sure what I will say about the knee caps, other than that I haven’t thought about mine in years, and only thought about them now as I searched for things to criticize about myself. I will also talk to her about all of the other wonderful things about her, and ten million other things that are important than noses or D-cups. I will tell her that I will always think she is beautiful, and that hopefully, one day, she will find another person who thinks she is perfectly beautiful exactly as she is, inside and out, and I will tell her I am thankful every day that I found that person.
Thinking about what we say to our children is important, but not saying anything is not a good alternative. Every child is different, every mother-child relationship is different, so the thing that is best for me to say, may not be the best thing for someone else to say. And what I say won’t be perfect. Maybe I will say too much, maybe I will say too little, but I will try, and she will know that I am always here to listen, and I will always tell her the truth, and I love her.