My daughter loves her body. She talks about her beautiful hair all the time. She likes to wear skirts and dresses to show off her “big strong legs.” She routinely shows me her arm “muscles,” made strong by swimming and taekwondo. She talks, completely without embarrassment or hesitation, about body parts that are sore or itchy or tired. She often walks around without pants, or completely nude, just because. She is entirely comfortable in her own skin...
She’s not alone, of course. When I tell other parents about my nudity-loving daughter, they smile and say that their kid does the same thing. It’s a kid thing, we all agree.
It’s true. It is a kid thing – especially for girls. Because I know there will come a time when my daughter will look at her body with something less than unbridled enthusiasm and admiration. There may come a time when she despairs over what she looks like, when she may join in that awful chorus women like to sing: “You’re not fat, I’m fat!” She might look at her hands, her face, her legs, her beautifully rounded little tummy, and think, This is not good enough. I am not good enough.
I know all this because I’ve experienced it. I suspect most women have – and probably a good proportion of men, too. It is very, very hard not to internalise the idea that there is one way to be beautiful: that is, tall, thin, white, with a perfectly proportioned body. Even when we are presented with so-called “different” ideas of beauty – plus-sized models and models of different ethnicities, for example – their beauty doesn’t stray too far from the ideal. Yes, their skin may be darker, but their bodies are lithe and long, like a dancer’s. Yes, they may weigh more than your sample size model, but their curves are totally in proportion, their faces classically beautiful, their stomachs still smooth and flat.
I know from friends who have older daughters that there is probably a time limit on my daughter’s love and total acceptance of her body. Whether they’ve seen images of pop stars and actresses and internalised the idea that beauty is thinness, height and whiteness, or whether they have picked up on the way that other – older – women speak about these things, these girls have often come to a pretty early conclusion that their own bodies and faces are just not good enough. My friends speak of their girls’ longing for a skinnier bottom or smaller hips or fewer freckles. They talk about how ill-equipped they feel to respond to their daughters, because when they look at them, they see only the truest form of beauty.
“ If there is one thing I have learned from my daughter, it is that hating your appearance is not innate. It is very much learned ”
I am trying to extend this time when my daughter feels nothing but love for her body for as long as possible. I tell her as often as I can that her appearance is the least important thing about her. I let her choose her own clothes because I want her to know that what she wears – and ergo, how she looks – will never change the way I feel about her. And I try, as much as possible, to talk about my own body in a way that I’d like to hear her talk about hers. I never call myself fat. I never gripe about my skin or my hair. I remember my own mum and her friends talking endlessly of diets and weight in the early 90s, and vow not to repeat that mistake.
If there is one thing I have learned from my daughter, it is that hating your appearance is not innate. It is very much learned. My daughter thinks that everyone looks beautiful if they are wearing the right amount of pink, and often strokes my hair and tells me how pretty my curls are (while all I can think about some days is how I can best control them). Recently, I put on an old dress that didn’t quite fit properly, and honestly, was not very flattering. I looked in the mirror and scowled, and then, remembering that my daughter was with me, smiled. She looked up at me and said, “Oh, Mummy, you look beautiful.” I knew that I didn’t – not really, not by our society’s standard of the term – but it was lovely to hear her say it. And then I thought about it some more. Maybe she was right. Maybe I did look beautiful. Maybe I had just forgotten what that really meant.