Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
Through generations, this classic line from the age-old fairy tale has been ingrained in our minds, differentiating one from the other.
Looking into the mirror, have some of us desired to be fairer, thinner, taller or more beautiful? Staring at my reflection, I find myself wishing for flawless skin, bigger eyes and less of the bulge on my waist. Well, I don’t feel very good about myself.
Once upon a time
Where did I first receive these messages about the ‘body’ needing to be a certain way? Did I hear those voices as I was growing up, from my childhood, through adolescence?
Comments from family members or neighbours could come in all shapes and sizes - about being too thin or too fat; about becoming dark and what to do about it, and the comparisons between siblings and between friends.
We grew up watching advertisements that promoted soaps for fairer skin or creams for a smooth wrinkle-free ageless face. The movies showed heroines to be fair, slim and pretty, and the heroes handsome. A feeling of longing and envy creeps in.
These experiences could slowly build an image about how we need to be seen, what we believe about our appearance and how we perceive what beauty is.
All these thoughts were suddenly interrupted by my children’s voices in the room. I began thinking of the messages I might have been sending to them about their bodies without even being aware of doing it.
How was I role-modelling?
My daughter came in front of me and looked at herself in the mirror and asked, “Ma, how do I look?” I asked her gently, “How do you see yourself?” Did my daughter see the appreciation in my eyes that she is truly accepted and worthy just as the way she is, or that she needed to be different in order to seek my approval?
How did my son view himself – Does he think being ‘macho’ is cool? Does it mean adding to the number of packs in his body? And how does he view a girl? How must she ‘look’ according to him? How does he treat his sister? Other questions came to mind – Do my children see their father respecting women, when he speaks with them or about them? What are they imbibing?
A parent of a 17-year-old shares her insight
“My daughter disliked everything about her body as she entered 9th grade. She considered herself too short, too thin, she hated her nose and said it was crooked, her eyebrows were not right. She researched and considered going to see a cosmetologist to set her nose right when she grew up. There was nothing she liked about herself. Her friends in school were dating and boys in her grade considered her a small kid due to her short stature.
Our conversations too surrounded her having to eat more, to grow tall and plumper. ‘This food is good for your skin, this one will make you fatter’, ‘If you do this exercise, you will grow taller’. So invariably our words indirectly portrayed that we too were hoping that she would become a child of average height.
She pushed herself to shine in sports, yoga, gymnastics, etc. where she would be noticed beyond her looks, and noticed she was collecting medal after medal. This is when, as parents, we realized that we were not assisting our child build her self-image but were rather destroying it. We wanted our daughter to love and accept herself the way she is. We began to regularly tell her that she was beautiful inside out and valued for who she was.
This was not helpful at first, but we continued to openly admire her good dress sense, her beautiful eyes, her sharp features and the fact that she may not grow very tall was just fine. It was vital that we started having such conversations around our conditioning and societal beliefs as we watched movies or read through magazines. We could see a lot of resistance from her but we hoped that something would sink in.
Soon she entered college and started making new friends who enjoyed her company and accepted who she really was. She loved taking care of her curly locks which were earlier a bane, creating her own style statement and feeling comfortable in her own skin. She met other girls who were of her height and who had developed a strong image themselves. We too shared our old teenage photos, laughing over our crazy outfits and styles, having open conversations about our inhibitions.
She is slowly learning to build her own self-image as we continue to learn to be mindful of what we say to her and how we portray her to others."
Body positivity and mental health
One of the major developments of the adolescent is the formation of a stable sense of self, and having a positive body image is one of the key aspects. Body positivity is affirming that every person deserves to have a positive body image despite the beliefs and messages received from society about an ‘ideal’ shape, size and appearance. Building a healthy self-worth is most essential for our teenagers' mental health and well-being.
Supporting our child
As parents, there are different ways in which we can help our child build a positive body image for themselves.
- Affirmations - Coaching our child to repeat positive statements like ‘I love my body’ and ‘I am enough’, helps support a positive self-talk. Post encouraging notes on the mirror and send it on the phone.
- Role modelling - When our child sees us affirming our own selves and sees the look of self-appreciation, it’s one of the quickest ways that a child learns.
- Acknowledgement – Affirm the child’s qualities, skills and talents, of what their body can do, so that they begin to appreciate their own uniqueness and build a healthy self-esteem. They will also see the uniqueness in others, knowing that each of us is beautiful in our own way.
- Conversations – Have family discussions around societal definitions of beauty and gender stereotypes.
- Peers – Support the child to identify peer pressure, comparison and negative self-evaluation and detrimental social media viewing.
- Self-care & well-being – Help build a healthy attitude towards food, exercise and having the freedom to have a voice, for play and self-expression.
Crusaders of dark skin and plus body size are breaking societal norms and age-old beliefs of body types. Let us continue being our child’s crusader by loving ourselves and our children - warts and all!Sujata Dewaji is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connections in families.