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Joyce McFadden

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Body Image: How Women Contribute to Girls Asking YouTube if They're Ugly

Posted: 02/27/2012 1:00 pm

Although we don't mean to, we women fuel the fires of self-loathing in our girls every time we express dissatisfaction with our own appearance or dissect it in other women and girls.

I can't think of a single woman I know, including myself, who hasn't grappled with some form of discomfort with her own physical appearance. It's the lens through which we've been trained to view ourselves and each other. Do we look fat? Do we look old? Whose body or whose face do we wish we had? Who are we competitive with? And always: Where are we lacking?

Our fixations are understandable because they've been ingrained in us. Unfortunately, even in 2012 we continue to live in a sexist society, and both men and women are raised with, and therefore can't help but absorb, sexism's primary tenet: Girls and women are to be devalued for everything but beauty.

These videos of our daughters' desperate cyber pleas for approval reveal just one of the ways this dynamic appears in our girls.

To be there for them, we need to be mindful that girls learn to be women not only through male scrutiny, but also in the context of women. Our girls go to school on us and learn what it means to be female through what we say to them, through what they observe in us, and through what they observe in our interactions with each other.

Women in my book confess spending 30-40 percent of every day focusing on body image, and almost 50 percent of them said they focused on it because their mothers did. They also describe the sadness they feel when their mothers fail to serve as role models for self-confidence. This sadness is due to the lose-lose situation it places a daughter in: She'll either have to join her mother in this devaluing of herself because she's learned from us "this is what women do," or she'll resent her mother for her inability to provide a female figure to look up to and will feel alone in her quest for balanced well-being.

Our daughters are up against social forces that make it hard to hold a sense of themselves as valuable and unique individuals. And we could be taking better care to protect them from these influences because we know these forces inside and out -- they're the very same ones we're up against. If we want to help our girls, we need to devote our energies to supporting them as well as ourselves, rather than focusing on the chronic deconstruction of them, ourselves and each other.

How many times a day, or a week, do we declare some unhappiness with ourselves in front of them? How many times do we comment on how pretty or old or heavy or skinny someone looks? How often do our greetings center exclusively on appearance? "Oh my God you look so skinny!" "Oh my God you look so pretty!" or "Oh my God you don't look old enough to be a grandmother!"

We focus on beauty at the expense of all of the other things we could be encouraging and celebrating. Our girls are having trouble finding their own value because we ourselves struggle with the same. In her beautifully moving article, "Smaller Than Before," Dr. Jessica Zucker (who trained under Carol Gilligan at Harvard and specializes in mothers, daughters and body image) shows us just how much we limit our appreciation of ourselves and each other with our narrow appraisals of what's important.

We often conceive of a preoccupation with beauty, weight and age as a solitary activity for a woman -- an internal conversation she runs in the privacy of her own head. But audible dialogues between women are all around us like white noise we barely notice. When we do tune into them, we tend to see them as nothing more than casual conversations between adult women. But women are having these conversations in the vicinity of children, who pick them up on their own radio frequencies. We're having them in coffee shops when we're sitting at a table for two that happens to be next to a table of teenage girls. We're talking about it on playgrounds while our kids play, or on the telephone while they're studying nearby. It doesn't occur to us that while we're engaging in these deconstructions of ourselves we're actually broadcasting them to other ears, and helping shape attitudes of self worth. It's also hugely important to note that women do this in the company of little girls and little boys, doubling the number of mindsets we influence.

In these ways we're teaching our girls to divest themselves of the very bodies they live in. Our focus on all the features and body parts that disappoint us only underscores the objectification of girls and women in our culture at large. In so doing, we unintentionally indoctrinate the next generation to follow the same social stigmas in which we ourselves feel trapped.

Intellectually, we understand we should raise our daughters to have proud and healthy subjective ownership over their bodies. But when we examine our own feelings and behaviors around body image, youth and beauty, the question we need to ask ourselves is: Why would our daughters want to take ownership over what they've been taught by us to disdain?