The messages that our children are given about beauty begin very early in life. They range from the very subtle, “Don’t you look pretty in that dress”, to the very obvious, “You shouldn’t eat so much, or you will get fat.”
Societal pressure is the culprit, and it has only grown more intense since I started my research into body image more than 20 years ago. We compare clothes, jobs, schools, homes, cars. We surrender our power, and ultimately the power of our children, to everyone else to tell us if we are pretty, smart, talented, successful, strong. It feels good when someone compliments us, but how many of us thirst for those compliments? How many of our children do?
As a psychologist and a father, I take a deeper look at the parenting experience and all of the potential issues that influence our children. For instance, I picked up my 2 and a half year-old daughter from our caregiver’s home and to my shock her caregiver said, “Show Daddy your pretty nails.” My daughter then showed me her painted nails. My wife and I had not painted our daughter’s nails before, nor did we plan to for some time. Some parents may read this example and think, “What’s the big deal?”, while others may share my concerns. But, I ask, what is the first thing that people say when they see a little girl with painted nails? Often the response is, “Don’t you look pretty.”
I want my child (and every child) to feel absolutely beautiful, but from the inside out, not the outside in. I also want her to believe in who she is, not what she wears or what she does to her body.
We don’t start out as parents wanting to cause pain and heartache to our children, however, somewhere along the way, our children are absorbing very subtle and obvious messages about themselves, some from us and others from society. What are we going to do, and when are we going to look at ourselves? Here are some things that you can do to help your child feel empowered from the inside out:
- Let your children know that beauty starts from within. The more you let them know that beauty is who they are, not what they are, the more it will sink in. If they wear pretty clothes or wear nail polish, tell them that the dress or the nail polish looks pretty, while letting them know that they are always beautiful.
- Teach your children to believe in themselves. If your child feels that others have done or said things to hurt them, let them know that they have the power to let it bother them, or look at why the other person may have behaved as they did. We teach our daughter to look at why she may have done things that may hurt others and why others may have done things to hurt her.
- Be aware of how you dress and how much you talk about your body, the clothes you wear, how much you or others make and the things you have. Do you focus on fashion and your appearance? Parents, sometimes without realizing it, talk about their weight, food intake and appearance. They talk about the new car or house their neighbor has. Kids listen to everything, even when you think they aren’t.
- If people are communicating messages to your children that you do not want them to be exposed to, tactfully say something to them. Try not to confront them in front of others. Find some time to talk with them on the side and let them know what happened and what you would like to have happened. In terms of our sitter, for example, the next time I saw her, I let her know that my wife and I did not want our daughter’s finger nails painted, because we felt that it sent a message about outward beauty. I explained that I wanted my daughter to feel pretty from the inside first. She was very receptive to this feedback, and we have not had an issue since.
- Be aware of the movies and television shows your kids watch, as well as the toys that they have, because some have messages that foster unhealthy comparisons, and focus on looks and materialism. For example, I am not a fan of older Disney movies such as Cinderella and Snow White because they send the message for women to wait for a man to come rescue them. On the other hand, Disney movies in the last ten years, like Mulan, send a more empowered message for girls and women.
- Talk to your children about some of these issues in our society. Also, watch them around others. Listen to what they are talking about. You may be surprised at what you hear and see. Ask them how they feel about themselves. Ask them what they think makes someone pretty or handsome. Ask them if they worry about what others think of them. We can’t prevent our children from life, but we can prepare them for it.
Parents often don’t realize the power of their actions. As you understand where you may have learned some of the messages you have absorbed, you can then begin to change what your child may be learning. Let’s make sure our kids start healthy and stay healthy.
Erik Fisher, PhD is a licensed psychologist, author and media consultant who runs a private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has been featured on CNN, and he has been a resource for NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN. "The Art of Empowered Parenting" is his second book and promises to change the way that parents and families look at themselves and each other.