Low-Fat Love 101: Raising Preteen Girls
March 3, 2013 by Patricia Leavy
Filed under Body Image, Empowerment, Featured, Finding Your Voice, Healthy Communication, Healthy Coping, Media Literacy, Moms & Sisters, Role Models, Self Esteem, Self-Acceptance, Self-Care
In the battles we wage over accepting or resisting low-fat love in our lives, the greatest battle is with ourselves. When we develop a strong and positive sense of self we are less likely to settle in our relationships with romantic partners, friends, coworkers and others. When we feel good about ourselves we are less likely to substitute low-fat love for the real deal.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this battle is often fought silently when we are young. I am the mother to a 12 year old daughter and if I could wish anything for her (other than health) it would be that she has high self-esteem and confidence. I believe everything else that I might hope for her— loving relationships, meaningful work, joyful living— flows from a positive sense of self. It’s incredibly difficult to instill a positive self-concept when children may encounter bullying, something my own daughter has dealt with, and are bombarded with unrealistic media images that often make them feel badly about themselves. As a mom I know there are no easy answers, but there are some things we can do to help our daughters to develop a positive sense of self.
1. Cultivate independent interests and skills (activities she can engage in on her own). Activities may include those in the arts, sciences, individual sports or related activities such as yoga. It is important that girls are not dependent on peers in their leisure time. Girls’ friendships tend to wax and wane and it is important for their identities to be grounded in something independent from their friendships. Also, cultivating personal interests fosters your daughter’s self-concept to be based on the things that she does and likes. My daughter has always loved art and so I’ve always made sure she has access to art supplies, books and classes. During a class project on bullying she recently shared with her peers and her family how much “having art” has helped her navigate through some very difficult times.
2. Praise intellectual, creative and athletic accomplishments. These activities bring endless rewards to our daughters, throughout the life course. By encouraging these pursuits we are setting up our daughters to build fulfilling lives. If every girl creates a well that she can draw from when in need— a love of writing, playing a musical instrument, swimming, running track, developing science experiments or simply reading—she will always have something to turn to—to quench her own thirst.
3. Help them build strong bonds with other girls. Girls can really benefit from girlfriends. Healthy relationships with peers can strengthen the quality of our daughters’ lives. Girlfriends can offer support, a springboard for self-reflection and companionship. Emphasize quality over quantity. Sometimes kids feel badly when they don’t have a large group of friends; however, a truly good friend or two is often what they need most. I suggest encouraging friendships with girls in after school or weekend activities so that friendships are based on common interests and so your daughter will have friends outside of her school system.
4. Help them understand healthy versus unhealthy patterns of interaction. It won’t be possible for your daughter to build healthy relationships with other girls unless she understands the difference between destructive and productive patterns of communication. Destructive patterns of communication—such as gossiping, teasing, jealousy and comparison—can be discouraged as we encourage our girls to value and attend to the quality of their friendships. For example, if your daughter and her friends are gossiping about another girl, perhaps a bully, you might try pointing out that by focusing their attention on this other girl they are giving her their power and they are missing out on a chance to talk with each other about their own interests. I have done this with my own daughter and her friends, and although perhaps a bit embarrassed at the time, she privately thanked me.
5. Help them develop them media literacy skills. We all know that popular culture sends girls toxic messages that, if unmediated, may contribute to low self-esteem and negative peer relationships. Girls are often portrayed in one-dimensional portrayals in programming aimed at pre-teens (the popular girl, the sidekick, the mean girl). These stereotypes reinforce and normalize these categories and may pressure girls to fit neatly into one of these categories. Friendships and other relationships are often depicted as based on unhealthy patterns of communication (such as gossiping, lying and competition). It is important to point out that these are not the only ways we can think of and communicate with others. All of the eye rolls you will inevitably get may make you think your daughter isn’t listening. But as I recently learned when my daughter reported her comments during a class discussion about gender stereotypes in the media, they may not always be listening but they are in fact hearing you.
1. What’s your advice for helping your daughter or sister develop a positive sense of self?
2. What’s the one thing you’ve learned that you most wish you could pass on to the younger generation of girls?