Promoting Self-Esteem in our Daughters
“Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” That most famous of lines from children’s fairy tales has been brought back to the silver screen this year in two major films, one a comedy starring Julia Roberts, the other a dark fantasy with Charlize Theron. But I’m not writing about either of these films; rather, I’m interested in the subject that animates both movies, the fairy tale that inspired them, and increasingly our whole culture: beauty.
It is for the sake of beauty that the Queen is willing not just to abandon Snow White to her fate but actually seek to murder her. And it’s a quest for beauty that is increasingly driving so many of our daughters and sisters to extreme measures as well. Nearly twenty years ago psychologist Mary Pipher sounded a call to arms to protect our daughters from the incredibly sexist bent of the media in her book Reviving Ophelia. Whatever steps women may have gained through the feminist movement in the workplace and world of politics, Pipher suggested, those advances are regularly being undermined by a culture and media that bombards girls with the message that unless they conform to a particular standard of beauty they will never be valued. From the unrealistic proportions of Barbie to dangerously thin “super” models, are girls are regularly and relentless assailed by images as artificial as they are catastrophic.
This relentless pressure to “be beautiful” – that is, to present themselves as objects for the attention and approval of men – has been for the last several decades driving up rates of depression, eating disorders, school failure, and suicides. The bitter irony is that the image of beauty we invite girls to emulate is absolutely unachievable. Hours of make-up, special lighting, and digital enhancements create a picture of beauty which is ultimately artificial, yet it an image that too many of our daughters and sisters and even mothers nevertheless judge themselves against. This short film by Tim Piper gives a glimpse into the “reality” of the beauty our girls hopelessly strive for:
So what can we do? Here are half a dozen suggestions, some we’ve been doing in our household for years, others we’re just beginning to try out. A quick but important disclaimer: We’re not perfect parents, and we definitely don’t have all the answers. We’ll each have to find our own way forward, and you may not find all of these helpful or workable. But at the same time I think we can help each other figure things out and support each other as we do. Moreover, I know these are small, small gestures, but they’re a place we found to start. Share what you’ve experienced and what has been helpful in your own home and lives to help our daughters and sisters develop a strong and confident sense of themselves.
1) Get rid of some of the mirrors.
Except for one decorative mirror in our foyer, we have mirrors only in the bathroom. An article we read when our daughter was very young – I can’t remember its title or where it came from – asked two questions we found intriguing: 1) Why do we have so many mirrors in our home in the first place? What purpose do they serve? 2) How can the presence of so many mirrors (and the images of ourselves the relentlessly present to us) fail to make us increasingly self-conscious and focused on our looks? Who knows, maybe with fewer mirrors on the wall they’ll be fewer insecure queens asking who’s the fairest in the land.
2) Avoid television.
Actually, we ended up not watching television (except for the occasional movie) when our kids were young. This proved way, way easier than trying to limit TV (which seems only to make it a scarce and therefore valuable commodity). We did this not because of the shows themselves but because of the commercials, 95% of them which are aimed at making our kids feel inadequate, creating a sense of lack that can only be filled by purchasing the product being advertised, and perpetuating the false idea of beauty. We’ve relaxed that as our kids have gotten older, watching a few programs with them, but we still often turn the volume down during the ads.
3) Tell your daughter she is beautiful…because she is.
I heard a psychologist once say that the more often your daughter hears you tell her she is beautiful the less she’ll seek out these words from strangers. This is important for moms to do, but the psychologist suggested it was just as and maybe more important for dad’s to say as well.
4) Tell her that she’s smart and strong and kind and determined and funny and creative and persistent and hardworking and fun and lots of other things as well.
As important as it is for her to hear that she is beautiful just the way she is, if that’s all she hears it reinforces the distorted sense of our culture about worth and value. There are lots of traits that make someone whole and, indeed, a beautiful person that go well beyond physical appearance. And while you’re thinking of those wonderful aspects about your daughter to name, try to move beyond gender stereotypes. Women are strong as well as patient, intelligent as well as creative, but we don’t always tell the women in our lives that.
5) Arrange for social media “Sabbath time.”
One of the great challenges that Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of the social media that are available to our kids presents is that our children have less and less “down time” – fewer and fewer periods, that is, where they don’t feel exposed or need to be “on” or be constructing and maintaining their “public self.” To one degree or another, we’re always working on our identity and projecting that identity to those around us, but that happens in earnest in adolescence. (This is why peer groups are so important at this age, as they are the main group with whom we test out our public selves.) When I was growing up, home was a refuge from all that, a place where you didn’t have to “be” anyone. With Facebook and Co. on the scene, however, our kids rarely get a break. There’s always their “wall” or some other social media presence that always makes them available to their peers and, indeed, the world. So create – and I’d say enforce – at least a day a week where no one in the family interacts with social media, a day to regain some balance and find a refuge from the constant need to tend your image. It will be hard…but totally worth it.
6) Point her to strong women in the Bible.
I know as you do that the Bible at points can be pretty awful to and about women. But there are also some incredibly strong characters – from Deborah to Esther and from the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7; no name but she sure proves a match to Jesus) to Mary Magdalene – who are worth getting to know. Read these and other stories of women in the Bible, discuss them, and see where it leads you.
One more thing: almost everything I’ve suggested can apply to our sons as well. Though women have had the harder time in our culture with regard to body image and issues of self-worth, from all indications our sons are under increasingly assault as well. And it will only be when our daughters and sons together decide that a persons worth comes not from appearance but character that we’ll all move forward.
Okay, last comment (I promise): Do I sound rather negative about our culture? Look, there are elements of our culture that I love as much as the next person, but let’s not kid ourselves: much of our culture is set up around consumption, and in this world our children are viewed primarily as potential consumers and customers. If we don’t protect them from being objects of exploitation, no one will.