This is one of the questions that I get a lot when I give talks – how do we raise girls to love and respect themselves in a world where they are told very clearly that they are not and will never be enough. Girls are rewarded for being “cute” while being flooded with images of a single, unattainable, photoshopped stereotype of beauty. They are inundated with the idea that their value as a human being is inextricably tied to how close they can get to that stereotype, and how attractive they are to men.
The truth is that there ARE major rewards for meeting the stereotype of beauty and serious consequences for failing. Fat women get hired less and paid less than their thin counterparts. Women who refuse to wear make-up are seen as unprofessional – including by other women. Women who refuse to wear high heels are seen as matronly, unsexy, and unfashionable. Social approval is very important to a lot of girls and you can get more of it if you meet the standard of beauty; that’s why we love make-over shows so much, because it’s not a new look, it’s a new social standing, and that’s precisely why the idea is so damaging.
So what do we tell our girls? I’m not claiming for a second to be an expert on childhood development, but here is what I wish more people would have told me:
The world is massively screwed up when it comes to beauty, body image and health. It’s not you, it’s the current culture that we all live in. Once you can separate your actual intrinsic self esteem (that you know you are amazing) from the messages that you should base your self-esteem on standards of beauty that were (as my friend CJ Legare says) created to steal your self-esteem, cheapen it, and sell it back to you at a profit, then no matter whether you choose to work the system, reject the system, or something in between you can stay ok within yourself.
I think we should do whatever we can to help girls see their bodies as amazing and worthy of love and care. I think we should give them access to as many different kinds of food and movement as we can without pressure or obligation. I think we should teach them that those who suggest that weight is the same as health, and weight loss habits are the same as healthy habits, are no different than those who insisted that the sun revolves around the Earth. I think we should remind them that “everybody knows” is not the same as the truth.
I think we should be honest with girls that we are giving them a pretty crappy inheritance when it comes to our cultures ideas about beauty and health, and talk about options for their own activism. Give them role models like Julia Bluhm who got 17 Magazine to take a “no photoshop” pledge. Help them see that the industries that oppress them run on their time, energy, and money and so if they take control of those things, they take control of the system. Teach them that one of the worst things that they can do is to try to make themselves look or feel better by making another girl worse.
Girls are going to be bombarded with the message that they have to change themselves to fit in the world. We can choose to give them the message that who they are is already amazing, and that, if they want, they can work to change the world to fit them.
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