Talking About Body Image And Makeup To Little Girls (And little Boys)

    This post is not just for moms (or dads). If you have a niece, or nephew, or other little people, you should read this.

    My daughter is in primary school, a bouncy mix of a toddler and a little lady. She observes me when I do things, and I know that she unconsciously sucks it all up like a sponge. Things that we see our parents doing when we are small imprint themselves hugely on our impressionable subconscious mind. Patterns picked up at this age will show up later in life, even if we rationally don't approve of them.

   I have to admit that teaching positive body image to my little girl has more to do with fake-it-till-you-make it than honesty. I do not talk about my body insecurities in front of her (yet). My own mother had an eating disorder, but I am extremely lucky that she kept it to herself and did not pass on her insecurities to me. Other than that she never ate together with the rest of the family, I didn't catch on till I was much older. My first exposure to body-hate came much later, as a teen, through women's magazines. I am really thankful that I went through childhood without giving my appearance much thought.
   I want to give my kids a strong sense of self as a foundation, and shield her from certain things till they is slightly bigger.

So here is what I do:

   Or rather, what I try to do. It's an imperfect process. Both my kids are in the stage where they are still learning primarily by imitation, but will soon grow into the phase where they learn learning through the intellect. This means that I try my best to teach by modelling positive behaviour and the discussions that we have are still short and simple.

* I talk about all the things that bodies can do.

    Bodies are for doing things and not for looking pretty. They are for jumping, for running, for lifting things, for playing. Legs let us run fast, and if we run every day we can run even faster and for longer distances. Thighs support the whole body. Muscles are amazing,they get stronger when they are used.
   I resist the urge to tell my girl ten times a day how pretty she is (this is why), instead I tell her she looks happy or glowing. Or we talk about dinosaurs. 

* I wear makeup because...

    "Why are you doing this?" is the most common question I get, whether I'm tweezing my eyebrows or applying mascara. My answers usually go something like: "because I like the way it looks", "because this colour is pretty", "because it's fun". I don't want to say something like: "because I look awful without it" or "because it makes my cheeks look less chubby". I think it's way to early for her to start wondering if her own cheeks are too chubby. I want makeup to be something fun but optional in her mind.

* I make sure to say "some people choose not to."

    I mention that I personally like doing things like makeup, epilating or having long hair, but other people choose not to do it. Some people choose to keep their hair long, some like it short. Some get their ears pierced, some don't. EVeryone likes different things, and can choose what they want to do with their bodies.

* I never ever criticise my body in front of her.

    When I look into the mirror, whether with clothes on or without, if I don't have anything nice to say I say nothing at all (at least out loud). Often, do I say something nice. I don't want her to start looking for flaws in her body at this age. I don't want to model body-hate, so I shut up about my own insecurities.
    I know that this dialogue will change as she grows older and gets more exposed to negative body image. That will be the time we will talk about body insecurities, photoshop and the media. For now, simply modelling a positive body image is important .
   If she does ask about things like wobbly body bits and stretch marks, I explain why the body has those bits (how scars are made, that fat jiggles), and mention without judgement that most people have bits like that on their body.
  Just to make it clear -- I am not in love with every bit of my body. I am (still) quite critical of it. Just not in front of children.

* I support her choices and help her stand by hers:

     Once she told me "C said my dress was stupid." We then talked about how it's important that she likes what she wears, even if her friends don't. The argument that made sense to her is "do you think C wears what she likes or what you like?" Sometimes she asks me how her clothes look, after telling her what I think I ask her if she likes what she is wearing. I also let her go out wearing wings or a tail if she wants to, as long as where we are going is not extremely inappropriate for that.

* I include my son:

   He is smaller and less interested in such topics, but I include him in the conversations. I am afraid that his generation of boys will go through body image struggles than the past male generations. The male market for cosmetics is growing, and this market is expanded by raising the beauty standards and planting the seeds of body insecurity into people.
    My small son sometimes get peer pressured about doing "boy things" and not "girl things", so I point out to him (and his sister as well) that gender norms don't make logical sense. Men can wear long hair, girls can wear short hair -- because hair is a part of your body and you can decide how you like to wear it. Pink is just a colour, some guys we know wear pink -- if they want to.

* I restrict media consumption:

   I was really happy when my TV broke. We never got around to fixing it. We do watch movies on the computer, and our favourites are Miyazaki movies with really cool princesses who are more concerned with doing awesome stuff than looking pretty.

   When my kids will grow older it will be much more challenging, especially when they get much more exposed to advertising, the media and peers with body issues. There will be much more conversations. About bodies, about beauty, about media. I started planting the seeds already. Both my kids know that advertisements are not truthful, because they want to try to make us buy their stuff. The kids often get excited about things they see on billboards, then pause and ask: "this is just an advertisement, isn't it?" (I got a bit sad recently when my younger one told me he "didn't find it nice" that all the pretty signs all over the town were "just advertisements".

   I'd love to hear from you how you (would) deal with questions from small kids about body image and makeup. How do you answer tricky questions? 

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