A couple of weeks ago, my four-year-old child was looking admiringly at the cover of a Cinderella coloring book. She's had it for half her life. Until now, she'd always been more interested in the scenes overall than in the individual princesses. And she's certainly never addressed anything about her body image. This time, however, she matter-of-factly announced, "Mommy, this girl is the most beautiful girl in the world. I'm not that beautiful."
I paused, with a sinking feeling in my gut, to absorb the news that the inevitable had happened. My child was comparing her looks to others'--even if the "other" was Cinderella--and finding hers inferior. Her tone was one of factual observation more than one of self-deprecation. However, I knew it was the precursor to what women everywhere are up against: the pressure to look whatever way society thinks is beautiful. People judge us on our appearances alone; people who don’t even know us, much less love us.
This mama's wish--and the wish of nearly every other mama I know--is that our children would live in a world that rises above that mentality. With my heart in my stomach, I took a breath before responding. Doing my best to summon everything I've studied about respectful parenting as it relates to body image, I neutrally responded, "Baby girl, that's interesting. Tell me more."
She proceeded to tell me everything she found lovely about Cinderella. When she finished, I acknowledged her closing statement with "Yes, I like the color of her dress, too." I continued, "Do you know what I really like, that you can’t see in any picture? In fact, I think it's what makes someone truly beautiful, more than anything else could."
"What is that, Mommy?"
"Kindness. Some people say it's nice to look a certain way on the outside, but kindness is the greatest kind of beauty. It has nothing to do with what someone looks like. Unlike appearance, which changes over time, kindness can last someone's entire life."
I could tell she was processing thoughtfully. We lingered on the topic for only a few moments more. I was careful to avoid giving the topic of external body image too much attention, lest it become a priority in her mind. As a mom, positive body image is one of the issues that I really need to own and model, and that I really want to get right for my child. It's a tough one for many of us.
After that, weeks passed without another mention of beauty. Yesterday, however, she approached me, holding the brooch of one of her dress-up gowns. On the brooch was a picture of Cinderella. I wondered what was coming.
My heart swelled with joy. Indeed, physical beauty and body image will be on my daughter's radar if she's anything like most of the women in generations before her. And she may or may not grow up looking anything like a princess, but that's not important to me.
Hard as it had been not to tell her how beautiful I think she is, I knew the importance of acknowledging what she said without negating it.
As a woman and particularly as a mother, this has been a tough lesson to learn. I have, however, learned that when I actively listen, be it about princesses or anything that's important to her, it helps foster our connection and build her confidence that she can trust me with her innermost thoughts.
So, I listened to her and added to her understanding, helping her unwrap her feelings. I wanted the opportunity to make a positive impression on her value system. The most effective way to do that is by listening to her with an open mind and guiding her appropriately. Loving and intentional guidance works so much better than telling her she's wrong.
We really can influence children’s thought processes and body image respectfully while still supporting their inner princesses—or superheroes—whoever they may be. We can help them absorb what really matters. And that, my friends, is beautiful.
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