We have three generations of some pretty amazing women in my family.
My mother raised six children, was the middle school secretary for 20 years, and then became a certified lifeguard—which she still is, at age 78. She has led, and continues to lead, a productive, at times challenging, always fulfilling life. In her youth she was tall, slender, strawberry blond, with gorgeous skin. She’s slightly shorter now, slender, with snow white hair and still-gorgeous skin. She is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known.
She also still weighs herself every day, wonders if her arms are too flabby, if she’s thin enough, pretty enough. She has never thought her body was good enough, and at 78 she is still asking, sadly, “When am I going to stop caring?”
I’ve done many things of which I’m very proud as well. I’ve been a teacher for more than a decade. I earned a black belt in karate as an adult. After quitting drinking over 25 years ago, I became the writer I always knew I could be. I married a good man and have two amazing children. At 55, I’ve led, and continue to lead, a good life.
I also tried to refuse a change in my post-cancer medication—knowing the current dose could have caused a heart attack—because I was afraid I would gain weight. I’ve struggled with body image issues my entire life; I, too, wonder when I’ll be able to stop caring.
My daughter, at 16, is a walking paradox. She is smart, funny and compassionate. She’s a fearless speaker about mental health issues—while struggling with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve spent most of her life trying not to let her see me struggle, and reminding her how beautiful she is so she would never doubt it.
But by continually affirming her beauty, I could have unwittingly been stressing the importance of looks over person: the opposite of what I wanted to do. That she seems at home in her own skin, I know, is despite rather than because of me.
My mother’s generation saw the rise of new standards of beauty promoted by television shows, movies, magazines and advertisements. Those standards led to the introduction of both fad and lifelong diet programs, ever-changing hairstyles and fashions, trends in fitness—all encouraging the constant quest for unrealistic beauty. They continued through my generation, when idealized beauty became normal—while remaining physically unattainable.
We’re slowly learning how unrealistic perceptions of beauty can damage a girl’s psyche—and a boy’s expectations. We’re learning that instead of only telling girls they’re beautiful—which so many of us do out of sheer habit—we should also tell them they’re smart, or funny, or good readers. They need to know they are loved for all of who they are, not just how they look. It’s challenging, I know, but words matter.
We also need to help children discern real life from fiction, which is not always easy when they’re constantly exposed to the images that bombard them on TV, tablets, computers and cell phones. Some content creators are beginning to understand that impact and are using more realistic body types for their advertising campaigns, which will go a long way toward assuring young girls—and boys—that beauty is not tied to a particular body type or hair color or skin color.
Negative body image has a long, long shelf life. It dampens any joy we might feel, anything positive we achieve, preventing us from ever truly knowing happiness. Consciously or not, our body image is on our minds 24/7, and while my mom and I laugh together as we compare pant sizes and weights these days, there is always, always the underlying query: “When am I going to stop caring?”
I hope there will come a day when that question is answered for my mother, a day when she can measure her self-worth by the lives she’s affected and the joy she’s brought, rather than an unattainable vision of how she thinks she should look. I hope there will come a day when it’s answered for me, too.
And I hope there will never come a day in my daughter’s life when the question is even asked.