Dear Mermaids: Body Image is Not a Trend

At the beach this summer, I saw two young teens snapping photos at the edge of the water.

The pair giggled at first, trying to get just the right shot with the ocean in the background, catching the sun dancing off the waves. Both wore their hair up in top buns, and possessed strong athletic bodies. Skin tan and glistening, I admired their youth and beauty.

I put my nose back into my book when I heard, “Wait, we can’t use this one because my face looks too round.”

Then, “Ugh. You didn’t hold the camera high enough, so my stomach is sticking out. Let’s take another.”

And then, “OK, just one more, and we’ll edit it before posting.”

By the end of the photo shoot, I was exhausted for them.

Instagram is a powerful place for young people. Posting a photograph can elicit a vast array of emotions for the viewer and subject.

It can empower a young girl by bravely demonstrating she has body confidence or continue to tear down one who feels left out.  It is a place where you can highlight your best assets or get ridiculed for exposing your vulnerabilities.

Recently, I read an article in Self magazine entitled, “Mermaid Thighs Are the Newest Body-Positive Trend Taking Over Instagram.”  On one hand, it makes me smile that so many women and young girls are working to counteract the dangers of the “thigh-gap” craze, where young women whose thighs did not touch highlighted what is unachievable for most.

According to Self: “The mermaid thigh movement is a direct response to the thigh gap trend that’s taken over Instagram in recent years. Basically, having a gap between your thighs was considered beautiful, which shamed a ton of women whose thighs naturally touch. The mermaid thigh movement recognizes that other group of women—those who don’t have a natural thigh gap—effectively giving every woman a body-positive trend to identify with. If your thighs touch, great. If your thighs don’t touch, great. Every set of thighs is beautiful, whether you have a thigh gap or not.”

I looked at the carefully posed photos of the gorgeous women who appeared in all colors, shapes and sizes, highlighting their beautiful bodies with captions of #mermaidthighs scripted underneath. It made me wonder: “Do my girls need to identify with a thigh trend to feel body confident? Can bodies even be a trend?”

Body confidence is not about identifying with a current shape du jour. It’s knowing you are more than your appearance and feeling comfortable in your skin. It comes from within.

Every time we — the media, retailers, consumers and Instagrammers — focus on a new body type as a “trend,” we tell millions of women that their body is “wrong.” It doesn’t matter if is portrayed as “positive” (such as a large bottom) or as  “attainable” (i.e., an eight-pack set of abs), If you constantly are immersed in photos believing your body should look a way that it never will,  you have a hard time loving the way you look right now. You have a hard time loving yourself at all.

And while I want sources of inspiration for my daughters — and even for myself — we need to stop using the shape of our bodies as trends — as something to aspire to — whether we think we are doing it for encouragement or shame.

Because the truth is, body confidence never goes out of style, even though body types do.

We need less posed photos geared towards perfection and more candid pictures of satisfaction; less hashtags about #bodygoals and more about #beautifulhearts; and less ostracizing of the norm, and more celebrating of the unique.

Because every time we highlight our body as a trend, we are stealing away a piece of someone else’s heart.

Keep up the great work mermaids. Just choose your hashtags carefully.

3 Ways I’m Changing My Daughters’ Measurements

“My sister wants her thigh gap to be three inches,” I heard a small voice say from the back seat of my minivan a few year’s back.

I quickly checked my rearview mirror to assess my daughters’ reaction to this comment made by a sweet third grader I was taking to the movies.

“What’s a thigh gap? Mom, do you have a thigh gap? Do I have one?” my seven-year-old asked.

Trying to sound upbeat while trying not to drive off the road, I responded: “It’s a space between your legs. Some people have it, and others don’t. It all depends on how your body is. You can’t really control it. So, are we going to get the popcorn pack or the pretzel at the movies today?”

I successfully changed the subject, but I knew from that day forward I needed to be more proactive in talking to my girls about weighty issues. The war started, and the first strike came unknowingly from a little girl with a 16-year-old sister.

But as my girls grow up, I am seeing there are more and more measurements that can bring them down. And I’m finding the best defense is a good offense, so here are three measurements I’m talking about with my girls:

3 WAYS I'M CHANGING MY DAUGHTERS' MEASUREMENTS

1. Social Media Sanity: I am starting to believe that there is no greater damage that can impact a young person’s self-esteem than participating in social media.  Girls often gain a false sense of accomplishment, or even power, from accumulating followers, likes or comments on social media, using these numbers as a barometer of their social status. On the CNN documentary “Being 13,” one student in the study admitted she takes 100 selfies a day to get one she likes well enough to post.

Conversely, when a post or photo is not well-received, or when a teen is excluded online (such as not being tagged in a picture or finding out their friends are at an event they were not invited), this often perpetuates feelings of insecurity.  While we all have experienced the feeling of being left out, social media now offers proof.

While limiting and monitoring social media is critical, most damage often happens when young girls “lurk” online, trolling friends’ activities without any context. Parents cannot underestimate the power of discussing social media with their children — without judgment. Whether we like it or not, social media is a part of teen culture, and unless you chain your child to their bed, they will see it. Topics should include how does it feel when someone comments on your photo or, does it ever feel bad when you check your social media accounts? Most teens cannot connect the dots that it is social media that is making them feel depressed, so it’s our job to talk them through it.

A friend recently told her 13-year-old daughter to use social media to make relationships she already had stronger, therefore only accept friend requests from people she knew well. If anyone messaged her about why she didn’t connect with them, she was to blame her “mean” mom for overseeing her account. The result is a young girl who is surrounded (mostly) by positivity as opposed to a teen seeking approval. While this is not a realistic option for everyone, it is a good way to get a young girl’s feet wet when it comes to social media.

2. Tip the Scales. I was in eighth grade the first time I realized I weighed 20 pounds more than my best friend, despite the fact we were about the same height. Now I realize it was because I was exiting puberty while she was just starting, but I remember the exact moment and feeling awkward about it. I also recall trying not to clean my plate at dinner that night.

We all know it’s important for girls to be healthy, not skinny, but teens today get barraged with images of women with “perfect” bodies. The average teen girl gets about 180 minutes of media exposure daily and only about 10 minutes of parental interaction a day, says Renee Hobbs, EdD, associate professor of communications at Temple University. Who do you think the kid is going to listen to?

Both moms and dads need to have a dialogue with daughters about weight and body image.  The discussion should include how most photos in the media are unrealistic and untrue, such as airbrushed tummies, elongated legs, and hidden blemishes. See what your daughter has to say about a woman you see on a magazine cover or a model in an advertisement. Ask if she would change anything about her appearance. Most parents are surprised to hear that their child would rather look like an “ideal” instead of themselves.

And it’s important to remember that the number one role model for daughters is her mother. This means it’s not enough to try to avoid negatively discussing our bodies; instead, we need to make sure we discuss what we like about ourselves, too.

3. Weight of the GPA. My nine-year-old daughter acted jumpy last week when handing me three tests she needed signed. I glanced at the top of each and saw she achieved the Common Core grading of “I,” which meant she mastered each lesson. I stopped on her math test when I saw she missed three questions. As I flipped to the back of her test, she burst out in tears and cried, “I’m sorry Mommy, I forgot to go back and check my work like you told me to.”

If I’m being honest, I was a little frustrated. Leaving a question blank is just silly, but then I remembered she is nine, and she proved she understood what she learned, so I backed off. Clearly we were both putting a little too much pressure on her regarding her grades.

I was shocked recently when I read that research has shown there is a clear correlation between grades and suicide risk. Sixteen-year-old students with the lowest grades are three times more likely to commit suicide than those at the top of the class.  This is not all surprising when we look at the combined pressures parents and the U.S. education system put on our kids.

While I believe working hard in school and trying to get good grades is important,  particularly in today’s competitive college admissions environment, it is imperative to communicate to our children that someone who gets more A’s is not more worthy than someone who gets B’s or God forbid, a C. Achieving good grades does not ensure a good life any more than one bad grade deems someone as a bad person. As parents, we cannot expect young minds to know the difference.

How do I want my girls to measure their worth?

I try to tell my girls to remember that life is about the impact you have on others, so work on building your brain and growing your heart, and the rest will fall into place.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

I Thought I Would Be Better At This

Recently, one of my daughters and I were in the car together driving to the dermatologist’s office for an appointment to check out some pre-pubescent acne. It is a rare occurrence that her sisters aren’t tagging along, so I relished the opportunity to chat with her about the upcoming school year, and other things we don’t have nearly enough time to discuss, like her love of Pitbull and new skins on Minecraft, whatever that means.

As we rode along, she meekly asked, “Mom, why do I have to go to the dermatologist?”

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” I responded off-handedly. “You’ve inherited Dad’s genes, and we just want a doctor to look at your skin to see what we can do to clear it up. And we want to make sure we do whatever we can to make you feel good about yourself.”

“But I already feel good about myself,” she replied quickly.

The words stabbed me right in the heart. Did I just tell my daughter that the way she looked right at that moment wasn’t good enough? Did I inadvertently slam her body image? Why didn’t we discuss this more and let the choice be hers?

I decided to slam the brakes on the conversation and take a different route.

“No, honey,” I stammered. “That’s not what I meant. You are perfect just the way you are. We just want a doctor to look at your skin to make sure you don’t have an allergy or infection or something like that. It has nothing to do with how you look.”

Phew. That was close to being a body image fail.

“So these pimples mean I’m sick?” she nervously asked.

Crap, I’m right back in it. Now I’m scaring her. Way to go, Mom.

“No no, no. It doesn’t mean that at all! I just meant when you have a reaction to something going on in your body, it’s good to have a doctor check it out,” I said too quickly, hearing my voice get higher as I tried to dig myself out of the hole.

“Like when dad had the wart on his foot?”

“Um, yeah, just like that.”

And then radio silence until we pulled into the parking space. In real-time, I think it was two minutes, but in awkward-parenting moments it felt like three days.

I put my arm around her shoulder as we walked through the office building door, and all I could think was I thought I would be better at this.

I thought I would be better at talking to my kids about the difficult stuff — the stuff that made me die of embarrassment when my mom tried to discuss it with me. I read books about discussing sex and articles about promoting health body image and blog posts about getting through puberty. I listened to my girlfriends as they talked about issues with their daughters and took mental notes. I even bought the American Girl series on puberty — all three books!

I wanted to be my daughters’ source for information. Although my mom swears she had “the talk” with me, I think I blocked it out like a traumatic experience. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret was my go-to source for getting through puberty.

Most importantly, however,  I wanted to make sure my girls felt comfortable enough to come to me with questions before they put themselves in a risky situation — or after if they ever found themselves in trouble.

I wanted to be a boss at awkward conversations with my daughters.

Well, not so much.

When we talked about bras, one daughter was most interested in knowing if she could get one of the thick, squishy bras, like mommy has. Apparently I’m raising a future Victoria’as Secret model.

When I tried to explain sexting after a friend caught her daughter just a year older than mine sending inappropriate photos, the conversation yielded a series of giggles about how disgusting boy’s “private parts” are. Despite my best efforts at a serious conversation, all I got was: “Who would want to see that?”

And my personal favorite is when I tackled the topic of menstruation with my girls, and one of them ended up bawling because apparently I made her believe that you get pregnant every single month. “I don’t want to have a baby every month,” she wailed. Epic fail.

I sucked at this. None of these difficult conversations went according to plan despite my best efforts.

I thought I would be better at this.

Or so I thought.

The other day I took my daughters to Claire’s to spend some gift card money. While there, a young girl sat screaming in the ear-piercing chair, begging her mother to let her out. For ten agonizing minutes, the child screamed while the mom negotiated with her to go through with the piercing, but she continued to cry and stuck her head between her knees.

Listening to them broke my heart. I unknowingly shook my head as I helped my daughter pick out some earrings. That’s when she turned to me and said, “Mom, no one should make you do anything to your ears that you don’t want them to.”

Yes! Yes! We had a conversation about respecting bodies sometime in the past. We talked about that.

And then this summer, my daughter hastily jumped out of the pool. I asked if she was okay and she told me a little boy, a four year-old friend of ours, was touching her inappropriately. “He keeps grabbing my butt, Mom. I know he is little, but he’s not listening, so I thought I would just get out of the pool.”

We talked about that too! Taking yourself out of difficult situations and not allowing others to touch us in ways that make us uncomfortable. We talked about that.

And then my youngest burst into tears one night for no apparent reason. I suggested that maybe she was tired, and she replied: “Maybe. Or maybe it’s those moaning things you talked to us about.”

“Hormones?” I said to my 9 year-old. “I don’t think that’s what it is. But I’m glad you are listening.”

Even the conversation on the way to the dermatologist, the one that broke my heart, demonstrated my daughter is doing okay, even when I flub it up. She confidently told me she feels good about herself no matter what —and I can’t ask for more than that.

Puberty, sex, drugs, alcohol, driving, bullying, boyfriends, body image, guns. etc. The list of things we need to discuss with our kids is long and never seems to end. I’m going to keep tackling these issues, as awkward and painful as it may be for all involved.

And although I thought I would be better at this.

It will be better because I tried.

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Dear Barbie, Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Dear Barbie,

Break ups are never easy, and this one is really tough. Seeing your blue eyes for the last time as I snapped the Rubber Maid lid on your resting place made me feel pretty bummed. I’m really going to miss you.

BCP84_c_2014_M1

Sports Illustrated Barbie

I don’t want you to take the blame for the end of our nearly decade long relationship. It’s not you. It’s not even me, although I know I always complained about your clothes being all over the place and the Dream House being a mess and your Camper being parked in the middle of the basement.  It’s just we don’t have enough time to commit to nurturing our relationship anymore with soccer and piano and horseback riding (the real kind, not the plastic kind.) I mean, we don’t even take baths at our house anymore, which used to be our quality time.

But I don’t want you to think that this has anything to do with your looks, which I know you’ve taken a lot of heat for the last few years. I have real-life friends that have teeny weeny waists and perfect boobs, long gorgeous hair, and perfectly made up faces. These women run marathons and do yoga and count calories, but they are so much more than that. They also volunteer at their kids’ schools and raise money for charity and hold the hands of their sick friends and give banana bread to their new neighbors. They are skinny and beautiful but also positive and strong. They are just like YOU.

Because I never needed you to be a body image role model for my kids. That’s my job, and I’m pretty good at it. Your job was to open up the imagination of my girls, and you did that and more. You helped my kids run a veterinary office, a school, and a clothing store. You enabled them to have elaborate fashion shows, pool parties and horse riding events. They played house and raised babies and had weddings on some days, and on others performed surgery, filled in cavities or piloted a plane to Disney. It was hours of fun.

And you never complained. Not one time. Not when you were strapped into the corvette with Cinderella Barbie and launched down a set of stairs. Not when you received a really bad hair cut that just couldn’t be fixed. Not even when you lost a foot due to a freak incident with a visiting dog. You were always there ready and willing to do whatever it took to make this relationship work with a smile on your face and a dream in your heart.

Military

Paratrooper Barbie

Life hasn’t been easy for you either. You went through a very public divorce, enlisted in the military, were shamed in the media and even at age 50, you are still constantly compared to other dolls. But through it all you held your head high,  kept those feet arched up and carried on.

I’m sorry, Barbie, but there’s no turning back now. Little girls always grow up, and unfortunately it’s time to move on. I already sold the Dream House (under market value unfortunately), put the car, yacht and plane on Craig’s List, and sent your friends — Skipper, the Disney Barbies, and whoever those brunette girls were — to shack up at the Goodwill, where hopefully some new families will take them in. I even sent the Barbie jeep and scooter to a new home where some different little girls will get to enjoy them. It really is over.

But I want to take a moment to thank you. Thank you for teaching my kids that a fancy ball gown and cowboy boots are an appropriate outfit for any occasion. Thank you for going along with whatever story my girls created for you that day. And even though your clothes are slutty and your stilettos too high and your make up is over done and your boobs are just a little too perky for my particular taste, I’m thankful we could get a Barbie for whatever my kids wanted to be that day, albeit a soccer player, princess, surfer girl or doctor. I’m sorta glad we missed your drag queen phase, but I think even that would have been fun.

I want you to know that although I’m sending you away for a while to a place called the attic, your memory will always live in our minds and in our hearts. And I hope one day — if I am lucky enough — you’ll come back into our lives again when my daughters have daughters of their own. I will welcome you back into our home with open arms and maybe even a new environmentally friendly dream house.

Because even though I know you’re just a doll, you’ve been so much more than that. You’ve been our ambassador to imagination and the purveyor of creativity in our home. And you’ve done your job well.

So long, Barbie. Until we meet again.

Love,

Me

P.S. I’m glad you never took Ken back. I always thought he was riding your coattails anyway. And no one’s hair looks that good all the time.

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When You’re All Alone, Do You Like Your Body Image?

I watched Colbie Calliat’s amazing new video Try over the weekend. It literally brought me to tears. I immediately showed it to my three daughters, followed by this video from last year which shows an average-sized woman getting photo-shopped into a model. It was time to teach them about the real world.

They thought it was interesting, but I’m not sure if it hit home for them yet. They don’t look through a lot of fashion magazines, don’t watch much beyond the Disney channel, and right now their idols are more like Abby Wambach (a U.S. soccer play) and Taylor Swift than  Gisele Bundchen or Miley Cyrus. For now.

But I’m not going to take any chances when it comes to my girls’ body images. According to a study announced in February of this year from the National Institute on Media and the Family, about 40 percent of girls ages nine and 10 have tried to lose weight. 

body image

Calliat looking beautiful without make up.

Seriously? Four out of 10 girls.

It gets worse. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders suggests that eating disorders typically start in the teen years, but may begin as early as age eight. Eight years old.

My youngest is eight. Her older sisters are 9 and a half.  I don’t have much time.

I don’t have much time to convince them that they are beautiful regardless of their weight. I don’t have much time to show them that they are more than the clothes that they wear and that make up should enhance their looks, not conceal them. I don’t have much time to hope they understand they don’t have to try so hard to fit an image or a beauty mold. And I don’t have much time to protect them from judgement, from peer pressure, from the media, from their “friends.”

So, because I don’t have much time, I will continue to try and show them. I will show them that their mother is comfortable in her own skin and that their father loves her no matter what her size. I will encourage them to love food, but more importantly, understand it — how it fuels the body, how it makes your skin glow, how good food tastes. And I will demonstrate Photoshop, talk about pictures in magazines, and avoid stores that don’t sell to “real” girls.

And we all say we will do these things, be that mom, live that life; but yet it is so hard. So, so hard to be the example I want to be for my girls.

Earlier this week when I received a compliment from my good friend about how I looked, I responded with: “Ugh. Thanks but I feel awful. I haven’t been working out and I’ve been eating like crap.”

My friend responded in kind when I told her how healthy she looked after changing her diet: “Blech. I’ve just gained three to four pounds.I know I’ll lose it but I just feel blah.”

Between us we have five beautiful daughters, are successful in our jobs, have great marriages and are just plain happy. And neither one of us could just say thanks after receiving a compliment about our bodies, although both of us live healthy lifestyles.

So why can’t we admit it to anyone else? Why is it so hard, especially as women and more importantly, as young girls, to like ourselves, to not care what others think, to not try so hard just to focus on our looks.

Colbie Calliat’s lyrics say so much. “When you’re all alone by yourself do you like you?”

Maybe that’s where I will start. For me — and my girls.

 

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