Please Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body

I recently read an article in The Huffington Post regarding how to talk to your daughter about her body, and it said not to.

It said,

Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.
Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.
If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that…
Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.

I disagree.

If you pretend that your daughter’s body doesn’t exist, she’ll feel like she doesn’t exist.

It’s not about ignoring our children’s looks. It’s about helping them to redefine beauty.

I understand why we would want to ignore. I understand that we’re scared to mess up our children. We have objectified ourselves. We have become objects of our own hatred or scorn. We are relentless when it comes to our own weight, our own scars and we don’t want to hurt our offspring with the same objectification and so we say nothing. 

But saying nothing is not the answer.

If we don’t acknowledge and affirm our children’s physical appearance, they will turn to the world for answers about how they look. And the world is heartless.

I say this with the plaintive voice of a little girl who longed for her parents to compliment her. A girl who thought she was ugly because her mother and father refused to say anything about her appearance. A girl who was taught that the only thing that mattered was inner beauty, and that anything else was vanity. A girl who became anorexic at the age of nine because she was so starved for attention.

My mum didn’t talk to me about my looks because she was a pastor’s wife who had been taught that self-love was vanity and that vanity was a sin. She had never been complimented growing up, either, and battled low self-esteem, so she not only felt invisible–she felt ashamed of her skin.

But the Bible doesn’t tell us not to love ourselves. The Bible says we need to love ourselves in order to love our neighbor.

We need to talk to our children about their bodies. But before we do, we need to learn to treat our own bodies with the kindness that they deserve. We need to learn to see our skin as cherished, designed by a divine creator who doesn’t make mistakes. We need to look in the mirror and practice telling ourselves “I love you.” To look at our arms and thank them for carrying our babies. To look at our stretchmarks and saggy stomachs and thank them for their sacrifice. To spread lotion lovingly on our legs.

And then, once we’ve done that, we need to talk to our daughter about her body. Especially if she’s lost or gained weight–not to berate her–but rather, to let her know that you see her and you’re concerned, wondering if she’s okay? Is she starving herself or over-eating because she’s trying to numb the pain inside? And if so, don’t try to fix the outside–the outer appearance is a door to the heart, and it’s the heart that’s hurting.

Your daughter knows she has a body. She knows it’s changing and growing and she knows what the magazines tell her. She sees herself in the mirror and she wants to know what you think about her. She wants to know that you believe she is beautiful, inside AND out, and that you love the way her eyes shine and her cheeks dimple when she smiles.

Beauty is not what culture tells us it is, honey. It is not a number. It is YOUR smile. It is not shiny hair. It is your hair, the hair that God gave you. It is not mascara. It’s your beautiful eyelashes, which frame your lovely blue eyes. It is not thin, or any size at all, except the size that you are, and I see you, honey. I see your body and your heart, and all of you is beautiful.

Your little girl wants to know that it’s okay to have a flat chest when all of the other girls are filling out their bras and she wants you to sit on her bed and cry with her when she feels ugly and for you to tell her all of the ways that she is not.

She needs you to say that she is gorgeous.

I agree that it is important to stress our children’s inner strength, their character and integrity, their morality and their spiritual fortitude. All of these things are crucial, but we are not just our soul. We are our face and our hands and our eyes and our feet. We are our bodies. Let’s not ignore, in an attempt to cover up or counter-act. Our children are being forced to face, head-on, the effects of a superficial society and we need to gird their self-esteem not by ignoring, but encouraging.

And when she hears you praising her, when she knows that both her appearance and her character are intentional and designed by a Creator who loved her enough to send his Son to die for her, she will know that she can stand up to the monsters outside her door.

Because someone believes she is worth fighting for.

(For more information on this subject, please consider purchasing my book, Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty and Life After Pregnancy.)









31 Comments

  1. This is so good Emily. It’s timely for me as I have conversations with my own daughter lately. Thank you for being bold and courageous. Your words are a gift.

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    • oh i’m so glad it’s helpful shelly. love you lots. e.

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  2. Wow! My spirit is screaming “yes”!!!! Thank you.

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    • I am “amening” you sister. Such wisdom here. (Submit it to Huffington???) Such an important point of view, life-giving and true.

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    • thank you sisters… so glad it spoke to your hearts.

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  3. I read the other post and I believe this is better. It’s why I’m thankful for your voice, heart and openness to take time, process and then speak. Just beautiful, Emily!

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  4. I too will be sharing this on my blog…and writing something of my own for tomorrow. I just recently felt the Lord so strongly urge me to tell parts of my story to our two oldest children…and this affirms that message to me.

    So I will be sharing my own…and the ways that I hope my children will see themselves differently than I saw myself.

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    • oh yay! i’m so glad friend… let’s keep speaking truths to our children. e.

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  5. Hi Emily. I have very rarely commented on your blog before… and I wanted to tell you that I love your voice, and what you share. Every post cuts me deep, or challenges me, or pushes me further to God… thank you for that. I dream to be a writer like you – who writes with honesty, respect for others, and out of a place that isn’t afraid to wrestle with God to find the truth.

    I have one question, too. You wrote, “But the Bible doesn’t tell us not to love ourselves. The Bible says we need to love ourselves in order to love our neighbor.” Where do you get this in the Bible? I am not asking this as a challenge, but simply out of the sincere desire to understand. I have never heard anyone say anything like that, and want to know where you have gotten this.

    Thank you so much.

    Much love from a long and faithful reader…

    -Anna

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    • oh Anna, I love your heart for people and for God. And thank you so much for these encouraging words. For so long I thought it was a sin to love myself, to take care of myself, but then I realized that the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor AS YOURSELF. (Mark 12:31)If we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love our neighbor. … also, Psalm 139 talks about how treasured we are, how cherished… if God feels this way about us, shouldn’t we? Does this make sense? Bless you. e.

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    • so grateful it spoke to you jennifer. love to you. e.

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  6. Amen to all of this, em. So important to tell our girls how gorgeous they are. I would only add one caveat. I had a mom who was pretty much obsessed with how I looked. I got compliments sometimes, but you know what? The compliments did not stick. At all. What stuck? The critiques – and there were many. Mostly because she loved me a lot and worried about me even more. She was stuck in the mindset that the only way forward at all for women was to find and marry a man. And every time she looked at me, she inserted her worries that something about me would not attract a husband. It came from her own harsh childhood and some lousy theology at points, but it was such a painful, powerful message. I was too tall, too smart, too duck-footed, skin too dry, hair too straight, hips too big. THAT’s what I heard when my mom talked to me about my body. So I guess I would urge caution. There’s sometimes a fine line there and I have learned from personal experience that crossing that line can have devastating longterm effect. Thank you for your voice in support of the little girls who never hear a kind word. Just wanted to add that too much concern with exteriors can be sort of difficult, too.

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    • oh, diana, how i ache for that little girl… i agree with you 100%. yes. definitely we need to speak only uplifting words to our children… because like you said, lies stick faster than truths… oh, i hope you know how beautiful you are friend. love you. e.

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  7. Dear Emily, first let me say thank you for your writing. I found your blog through my friends, your sister Meredith and brother Keith, and enjoy reading it, not least because you express so wonderfully both things I agree with and things I disagree with. :) I always love this in another’s writing because it helps me understand things I wouldn’t otherwise understand. And you write so beautifully.

    I found this post interesting in particular because I remember the one time my mother complimented me (physically). She told twelve-year-old me that I was pretty and I responded with anger and told her never to say anything like that to me again. At six years old I had looked into a yellow stained glass window and thought my reflection was rather ugly. It saddened me a little and I sighed and supposed that I would have to go through life without the beauty I would have taken if given a choice. After that I didn’t think too much about my looks, and it never occurred to me until my twenties that society might value me or devalue me because of my face or my body. By then I was confident enough in who I am as a person that it didn’t really matter.

    What I do wish my parents had told me is that being a woman isn’t only about fertility and the future hope of a husband and kids. I wish they had told me that I was intelligent, and that I should use my talents and develop them as much as possible throughout my life in order to help overcome the many challenges and issues we face, as individuals and as societies. I wish they had told me that family is more important than any selfish ambition I might have, but that there is room – if I feel called and have the drive and gifts and energy and desire and opportunity – to work at many things, both within the home and outside it, for the glory of God.

    This is why I, personally, am deeply encouraged by Sheryl Sandberg’s book. Growing up I felt a lot of pressure from the church and my parents to value the role of wife and mother, not only above all else but exclusive of any pursuits outside the home. I am thankful we live in an age and a society where we have the choice to use our time and our gifts in many different ways. I am thankful that women like you are speaking out to encourage those women who have chosen, at least for a period in life, to focus mostly or exclusively on their roles as wife and mother. It is not easy. I also can’t help but wish there were more Christian women speaking out about the fact that this isn’t the exclusive calling of all women.

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    • thank you so much for sharing this friend! i understand where you’re coming from… and i agree, it’s not the exclusive calling… i think all women, however, have the calling to breathe life into the world through whatever means they’re able… perhaps it’s at work or at home, but we create through our words, through our hearts, through our minds… so in that way, we nurture the world… does this make sense? so much love, e.

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  8. Yesterday I was appalled when my pediatrician told me my TWO year old daughter was considered overweight. Did you know they are testing BMI on babies now? My daughter eats no junk food and runs constantly but comes from sturdy dutch/german stock and is bigger than many toddlers her age. It made me more determined than ever to help her love herself. I am going to model good nutrition and movement for her, but from a self-care standpoint. Thanks for posting this!

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    • oh my goodness emmie! this makes me so sad… what a world we live in…

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  9. amazing! i always believed this! God is a creator of beautiful things and diverse in His creations! so everything is beautiful! amen!

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  10. Love this post! I can identify with much of it from my own childhood. Trying to do things differently with my own daughter. And I’m loving watching her blossom in areas that I never did until an adult.

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