On Barbies and Bodies and Beauty

Posted by Beret.

Puberty is a wild ride; I must have forgotten. Or maybe–despite the hideously awkward classroom discussions and cheesy pamphlets–I just experienced puberty as my own ridiculously crazy life, rather than as a period of adjustment and development that everyone experiences.

Most even survive.

As the parent of two tweens, I get to relive plenty of adolescent drama and excitement, and this time around, I’m hyper-conscious about what I do and say that might impact the way my girls are thinking about their own health, beauty, and developing bodies. I want them to know that they are growing and changing in just the right way; that human beings are beautiful, and that each and every one deserves respect and kindness no matter what they look like.

Well, almost everyone.

I want to set my girls firmly on a path away from self-doubt and—I’ll be honest here, though it’s terrifying to do so–as far from self-loathing, eating disorders, cutting, binge drinking, and drug use as possible. I thought I’d start my campaign by addressing the issue of healthy body image. But how to tackle it? And am I far too late?

A former colleague once said to me, “I always felt confident and beautiful. My mother did a great job of convincing me.” At the time, I just marveled, feeling a little jealous. These days I feel a little desperate. What did she say and do to make her daughter feel so good about herself? Because that’s what I want to be saying and doing.

Recently, Mattel launched a whole host of new Barbies, including a rainbow of colors and sizes: petite, tall, and curvy. That should help get the conversation started. Now everyone understands that beauty can take any shape or form. Right?

Image credit Mattel, via Vox.com.

Image credit Mattel, via Vox.com.

Yet when left alone with curvy Barbie, even very young girls typically take off her clothes and laugh. “Hello, I’m a fat person. Fat, fat, fat,” a six-year-old had Barbie say in the testing rooms (From Time Magazine, Jan 28, 2016). Though kids were more diplomatic when adults were present–“Barbie is chubby”–I found this revelation profoundly depressing. Doing more research did not make me feel any better. According to the National Eating Disorders Association website, 42% of first grade girls wish they were thinner. And in an article entitled, “Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?” I learned that “35 percent of girls ages 6 to 12 have been on at least one diet, and 50 to 70 percent of normal-weight girls think they are overweight.” Dissatisfaction with one’s body starts early and leads nowhere good. If you diet frequently, for example, you’re much more likely to binge eat (12 times!) and eventually progress to a full-blown eating disorder, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (NEDA).

Despite Sarah Koppelkam’s Huffington Post a while back, I don’t believe silence is the answer. In her words: “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. Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight. If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that.” I just don’t see how silence can work. It’s not like parents function in a vacuum. Every day, we’re swimming against a tide of an average of 3,000 advertising images–and all the messages hidden therein: what is beautiful, what is valued, what is not.

When I was an adolescent, Maybelline launched a campaign with the tagline: “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.” Rough translation: either you’re born with it, or you buy it. Even back then I thought the tagline was laughable. But despite that fact, I still have a cupboard full of cosmetic crap because deep down, I internalized the message that making myself sexually desirable was a big part of my job. Girls dye, pluck, diet, and take laxatives. Seemingly reasonable women I know have used botox, broken their ankles trying to hurry in high heels, and gotten their eyes done. Why do we continually try to look “better”–a.k.a., align more closely with the propaganda?

The concept and development of self-image is a complex web of interconnected issues with roots that run deep and touch on topics of gender, power, race, and equality. I realize I am merely scratching the surface in this discussion…and I’m not ready to take on the world at the moment. I just want to help my two kids negotiate it and feel good about themselves.

Here are my immediate goals as a parent in the arena of body and self-image. I want my girls to be comfortable with who they are–size, shape, skin, clothing, intellect, abilities, choices. I want them to stand tall and enter the world ready to take aim.

Plus, it wouldn’t hurt if they showered now and then.

In the absence of any profound wisdom to share at the moment, I present a lovely set of interactions brought to you by a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts, who captured what happens when you tell people they are beautiful. It’s a start.

Got any suggestions? Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.