Daddy, am I pretty?
For many daughters, their fathers are the reflection of how a girl is perceived physically. For the dad, it’s a powerful position to be in and not always the easiest to navigate. Because we live in a world where media pressure continues to measure success with a tape measure and a scale, knowing whether or not to compliment or comment on their daughter’s appearance can cause a great deal of confusion. I have armloads of empathy for fathers who may feel lost in the Paternal cul de sac from hell, trying to find their way out:
How can I help my daughter feel good about herself if I don’t tell her she is pretty?
It’s true that the world we live in makes it difficult, but imagine what kinds of things a dad would tell his son to help him feel good about himself that has nothing to do to with being pretty or handsome. But sometimes, we hear:
But no one will like her if she’s fat. I’m just looking out for her own good.
Would you want her to be in a relationship with someone who is that superficial? Is being in a relationship with someone else more important than having a healthy relationship with herself?
Okay, forget about that. How can I help my daughter love herself if I don’t tell her to lose weight? After all, if her father doesn’t tell her, who will?
That’s an easy one…EVERYBODY!
Okay, I’ll tell my daughter she is beautiful no matter what she weighs or looks like.
This shows indisputable good intentions but this too can be a mistake.
*HUGE sigh of exasperation.*
I know it seems unfair, but comments such as these still put the emphasis on her body and appearance and qualify her self-worth through the arena of beauty.
I can’t do anything right in this arena, can I?
Let’s turn that around and ask the question a different way.
What can I do that is right in this arena?
So glad you asked! Can we stop using the word arena now???
Number 1: Recognize your power… use it wisely.
Please understand how much influence you have as a father and take this aspect of parenting VERY seriously. I am not saying that there are no father-son issues that are also potentially problematic, but that there are father-daughter-specific pitfalls that arise when it comes to a girl’s body image, and the stakes are high.
Case in Point: I was 13 when my mother died, and my father was left alone to raise his daughters. Girls are super impressionable in their early adolescence, and 13 is a crucial age for developing a healthy body image. I was no different. I was already self-conscious about the transformation that was taking place … my body seemed to be betraying me in so many ways. I could no longer be “one of the boys” in my t-shirts and jeans, climbing trees and playing ball – I had these breasts to contend with. I could no longer be invisible. My body became a place where uninvited comments crashed my private party of self-worth and comfort. My dad’s concerns about my (actually completely normal developmental) weight gain during puberty complicated the issue. Then I started dieting and gained even more weight.
And so it began. I was praised when I was thin and shamed and pitied when I was fat. I didn’t have a stable internal compass of who I was. There was no (self-esteem) needle always pointing north; it changed at any given time based on my body size and fluctuating weight. My father’s opinions about my attractiveness carried even more – dare I say weight – when I started to be interested in boys. So, in order to please my dad, and all other males by proxy, I had to look a certain way, even though there was no way I could pull it off without dieting and diet pills.
Being healthy wasn’t enough. I needed to be thin or I was a failure.
Of course, my dad was certain that his insistence was only more proof of his love for me, and I understand why he would feel that way. But as an adult, and a parent myself, I know now that the way he expressed his love for me and the manner in which I tried to earn his love – through my waistline – robbed me of any love I may have had for myself.
Number 2: Separation/Individuation
Becoming a parent was my first experience with the Occupy movement. It started with Occupy Womb, and spread like wild re to Occupy Bedroom, Occupy House, Occupy Mind, and continues in the present to occupy my heart and my life. Never before had I felt so completely responsible for another person’s happiness. Never before had another person’s happiness been so integral to my own happiness. I wanted desperately to provide an environment where value and self-worth were not measured by waist size or pounds on the scale. I wanted to sever the cord that attached physical appearance to self-love and self-acceptance. But, even if we could raise our children in a completely weight-neutral attitudinal vacuum, one day, our kids will leave home or turn on the TV and, inevitably, they will be at a loss as to how to deal with the onslaught of this crazy, sexist, body-obsessed world.
Thus, the weight-neutral vacuum intervention (WNVI) is really not the way to go. Instead, it is important to offer counter messages and opposing views and to cultivate an inquisitive mind that will question the norms. Two of these norms are (1) the belief that diets work and (2) that what you look like is more important than what kind of person you are. It is imperative to remember that your daughter’s body is NOT your body; so please resist the impulse to put her on a diet and try with all of your love might not associate your love for her with her appearance.
Number 3: Fire the Judge
There is a difference between judging and exercising good judgment. As parents, we want to help our children learn to use good judgment as they figure out their lives. Poor body image and eating disorders go hand in hand. Think about this: If self- worth wasn’t constantly associated with beauty, do you think that body dysmorphic disorder would even exist? It all starts with judgment – or should I say, poor judgment – when girls are taught that beauty is their most valuable asset. It is easy for fathers to fall into the role of the judge in a misguided attempt to help their daughters. For some, not doing this is difficult and may feel cognitively dissonant. But there will be enough people out there who are more than happy to take on the roles of judge, jury, and executioner, with your daughter’s body playing the role of the accused. So, perhaps what she needs is supportive counsel, helping her define her life and self-worth using a different set of standards. I think you’d be perfect for the part!
These are not pretty concerns … whoops! (Classic Freudian slip: I meant to write “petty” and it came out “pretty”! Way to go, subconscious!) These are not petty or pretty concerns. They come from a place of wanting to be a good dad and wanting happiness and success for your daughter. But it takes conscious and careful execution of these intentions to produce a result that is congruent with your desires. So, with Father’s Day coming up, along with all of the ties, coffee mugs, and ridiculous TV-remote-control-joke Father’s Day cards, take a moment to appreciate your daughter for being your daughter and enjoy a moment of precious, unconditional, and mutual love. It is a gift that will last forever.
June is a month of transitions. School is out for summer and many families are partaking in promotions and graduations. Some folks are switching from a regulated schedule to a more chaotic one. Perhaps parents are adjusting to their college kids being back in the home or their younger children going away to camp or other summer programs. With new jobs for some and free time for others, few people enter summer without experiencing some kind of shift from their normal routine. Transitions are difficult for many struggling with eating disorders and body image issues.
The stress generated from June’s transitions often result in an increase of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. So, let’s dust off our “crystal ball” and predict the challenges that summer may bring, so we can plan ways to manage the stress and anxiety that change introduces into our lives.
Hello Mudder, Hello Fodder
The third Sunday in June is Father’s Day. I know we just made it through Mother’s Day and explored the symbolism and associations with mothering. Father’s Day, for most, may not be as symbolically intense and loaded with emotional meaning as Mother’s Day. The archetype of the Mother is perhaps more far-reaching than that of the Father, but that doesn’t mean that we are without fodder for growth, especially in light of the role a dad can play in his daughter’s self-image, as we just discussed.
Boys are not completely spared from these early body image messages, especially if they are not developing stereotypically athletic bodies. Fathers may be less diplomatic with their sons than their daughters in dishing out negative body talk, figuring their son should “man up,” take the criticism and just do something about it. But did you know that the number of boys and men with body dissatisfaction and eating disorders has been steadily increasing over the past decade? So, boys and girls alike have their body image and self- perception shaped by messages from their fathers.
June also officially brings us the first day of summer. We have been working arduously since spring to reject the incessant barrage of media messages that “bathing suit season is coming!” Working on body positivity and size acceptance includes fostering the radical opinion that bathing suits exist primarily to allow us the option to swim in public facilities and everyone has a right to swim where they want to.
Wow! A revolutionary thought, no? Think about it. If a bathing suit is technically nothing more than the approved uniform for pools, lakes, and beaches, then everyone should be entitled to wear a suit and not be judged worthy or unworthy of baring their skin. But the hijacking of bathing suits by the fashion industry, and the sexist spin artfully orchestrated by magazines such as Sports Illustrated, has resulted in the cultural paradigm that “only people who look a specific way are allowed to wear a bathing suit in public.” Isn’t it maddening that the very same people who insist that fat people get off their “lard-asses” and get some exercise, in the same breath, make it taboo and shameful for them to do just that?
The meta-message is that only thin people are allowed to swim in public. And while it isn’t outright illegal for a fat person to wear a bathing suit at the local beach or pool, the shaming and bullying that inevitably is hurled at a fat person in a bathing suit have the same outcome: a fat-free environment. This level of discrimination is incredibly hurtful, to say the least, and managing our feelings of rejection and self-loathing is challenging. It is imperative that we remember that we have as much of a right as anyone else to feel good about our bodies. If we want to swim, surf, scuba dive, or sunbathe, it is our choice. No one should be allowed to take that from us.
And please, once again, don’t forget that you are not alone. Working on improving our internal self-esteem and accepting our body is vital, but our body positivity grows stronger when coupled with a support system that reinforces this point of view.
Important Dates to Remember:
Third Sunday – Father’s Day
June 19th – Juneteenth (Emancipation Day)
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation or Freedom Day, commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the US. This day symbolizes the power of civil rights movements and reinforces the importance of activism by all on behalf of those still oppressed. As long as any faction of our society is marginalized, we are all subject to being marginalized.
(Originally posted on FabUplus June 5, 2018)
Dr. Deah Schwartz, clinician, educator, and author specializes in Expressive Arts Therapies, Eating Disorders, and Body Image. Deah is the author of Dr. Deah’s Calmanac: Your Interactive Monthly Guide for Cultivating a Positive Body Image and co-author of the NAAFA award winning Off-Broadway Play, Leftovers, and its companion DVD/Workbook Set. An outspoken “New Yawker,” Dr. Deah believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to point out and eliminate size discrimination even when it means battling the mainstream media, and even more challenging…family members! To find out more about Dr. Deah’s work visit her website.