My daughter, Gigi, is eight and has always been a bit eccentric in her fashion choices. She loves pairing colorful tights with patterned skirts, or shorts with tall boots. She throws her hair up into a messy bun and tops it with a bow. And the girl can apply glitter eyeliner like a pro, while I walk out of the bathroom looking like a panda after trying to tackle a winged cat eye for an hour.
My sons, Wyatt and Jude, are 10 and 11, respectively, and I still pick out their outfits, which I am fine with, because at least I know they’re wearing underwear and applying deodorant. I do the same for their father.
Whenever we go out, the boys rush through their pile of clothes, and then right before we are set to leave, I call for Gigi, who comes bounding down the stairway in something colorful and whimsical and ready for the world.
And then one day that stopped.
“Does this look okay?” she asked, leaning against the door of my bathroom, watching me do my makeup.
“You look awesome,” I told her, meeting her eyes in the mirror.
And then she walked away, but not the way she usually walked, bouncing and confident and defiant. She looked suddenly very small and unsure of herself.
She came into my bathroom and asked me the same question the next day, and almost every day after that. I asked her all the important questions, whether something had happened at school, or if anyone had been mean to her. I wondered if there was something I had missed. I spoke to her teacher, studied the shows she was watching on the Disney Channel, texted with her friends’ moms, and even took her to lunch to talk about how she felt about herself and asked if there was anything she wanted to tell me. There wasn’t.
“Does this look okay, Mom?” It just kept happening.
Gigi is stunning, and I know I’m supposed to say that because I’m her mom, but seriously, she’s gorgeous. She has long dark hair, big brown eyes and a dimple in her right cheek. I love every single inch of her, and in my eyes, she is perfect.
Not long after this, Andy got us tickets to see my favorite band, Hall & Oates. I should be embarrassed telling you that, but I’m not. I have a very real crush on Daryl Hall. It was an outdoor concert, and I was feeling a bit frustrated with my summer outfit choices, the pile of discarded sundresses growing ever higher as I yanked one after the other off the hanger. I’d put it on, stare at myself in disgust, and then stomp into the bedroom in front of Andy.
“Does this look okay?” I asked again, sweaty and annoyed.
Ah, see? You see what I just said right there? Putting on an outfit and parading in front of Andy for approval had become so second nature I didn’t even realize it was happening. And I didn’t even want his approval. Andy has a terrible sense of fashion. If what he wore were up to him, he’d be wearing basketball jerseys with white T-shirts under them and gym shorts to dinner. I think I was just looking for him to be more excited about my body than I was feeling at that moment.
If I walked in and his eyes lit up and he told me I was stunning, maybe his enthusiasm about my outfit could carry me through the night knowing that I looked okay to everyone else, even if I didn’t think so.
“Does this look okay, Mom?”
Yeah, Gigi learned that from me.
It’s hard, as parents, to see ourselves as the potential villains in our kids’ lives, especially since we spend so much time protecting them. We see our personal body insecurities and self-hate as affecting only us, when in reality, they play out like daylong soap operas in front of impressionable audiences. Kids aren’t born with a narrative for how to treat themselves. We supply that, and we do it not only directly, but indirectly, in how we treat ourselves.
Gigi was asking if her outfit looked okay because by watching me, she thought that was what women did. Women put things on and then ask other people if they look good. Our children learn to be adults from us, and sometimes our teaching methods just plain suck.
It’s pretty pointless to try to talk Gigi into loving her body, when according to her own mother, the adult version is worthless and disgusting. So there’s step one. You want to teach your daughter how not to hate her body? Stop hating yours out loud.
Obviously the goal is for you to learn to love yourself entirely, but that is a long journey that can’t be taken at the expense of your child. So right now, just shut up and pretend you like yourself. Save the diet talk, food shaming, and extreme body hate for an adult you can have constructive conversations with. Your daughter is not that adult.
Teach her how to enjoy dressing her body. This was an incredibly hard skill to learn as an adult. I spent most of my youth obsessing over everything I couldn’t t into; I never learned how to dress the body I had.
I hated to shop. When I was a kid, it was a lot of my mom shoving me into dressing rooms with armfuls of clothes she picked out for me and asking, “Well, does it fit?”
When I wish she had asked:
“Does this sweatshirt feel good on your skin?”
“Can you dance in these overalls?”
“Can you tell the obnoxious boy who sits behind you in math to shut up in this dress?”
“Do you like this skirt enough to have it featured in the slide show about your life that we show before your presidential inauguration?”
There are a lot of scary things in this world; a bathing suit or a pair of jeans shouldn’t be one of them. I don’t ever want my daughter to dread dressing herself or feel like her options are limited by the shape of her body.
Remind her that everyone has flaws. I always take comfort in watching ’80s movies. They are like wool blankets I can wrap around me when I want to feel happy and included. I like watching them because the people who starred in them feel relatable.
Teeth weren’t bleached white—heck, they weren’t even straight, the bottom row all jumbled together and overlapping. Noses were big and disproportionate. And the boobs were either tiny, pointy or like two heavy melons straining the bands of the actresses’ bras. I look at those women and think that if I told them my nipples pointed down, they’d say, “Oh, girl, me too!”
The stars of eighties films aren’t unattainable. They look like the girls I go to P.F. Chang’s with when I find a baby-sitter or the guy whose eyes I knowingly meet when I’m looking for someone to commiserate with because the loser in front of us at McDonald’s can’t decide what he wants to order.
Showing Gigi nothing but flawless celebrities not only sets the bar of self-esteem at insurmountable, it’s also incredibly boring. I want to show her why scars, back fat and lisps can be not only beautiful, but cool.
When I was thirteen I used to pray for my perfectly straight teeth to bend like Jewel’s, because how could something with that much character not be extraordinary?
Teach her how to deal with self-hate. As much as I want to hide all my body hate moments and failures from Gigi, doing that will only handicap her when she faces them on her own. Teaching your daughter how to better handle those moments when she feels weak or worthless or unpretty will lessen the chance of them consuming her.
I make no secret about being a tourist in the land of loving my body. I do not fully understand the rituals or customs; I just try to fake the language enough that I am able to find a bathroom when I need one.
So when I get lost or frustrated, I try not to totally shelter my daughter. In fact, her presence keeps me safe, warning me to be gentler to myself in front of her. The same way Andy takes my phone away from me when I am drinking red wine because I’ll only start drunk-texting all my contacts various Adele lyrics, Gigi keeps me respectable.
So she sees my down days, but more important, she sees that the sadness is only temporary. She sees me pick myself up and move forward, because these days, my body hate has a very short memory.
Show her how to be a better woman to other women. For the love of God, stop the cycle.
I believe women are born with an innate set of checks and balances. Like the government, only instead of ending wars or dictatorship, our system only works if it preserves a consistent level of self-esteem. When we see a woman who is heavier than us, or less conventionally attractive, feeling better about herself than we do, our checks and balances system is triggered, and we work to discredit and destroy her.
“If I feel like shit, everyone must feel like shit!”
We make passive-aggressive remarks about this woman, we plant seeds of doubt, and we settle into the safety net provided by the Internet to gossip in anonymity.
“What is with young girls today dressing like sluts?”
“This is why I only have guy friends, women are too dramatic.”
“I just ran a 5k, cleaned the house, bathed all nine of my kids and meal-prepped for the week. What’s your excuse?”
Fat-shaming, mom-shaming, slut-shaming… look at all the types of shame we have! Men have none. We hide these attacks behind “no offense,” “not to be mean but,” and “sorry not sorry,” but that only proves we’re malicious. We are the perfect war machines, and the government should really just hand the entire military over to us women to shame Kim Jong-un into stepping down by talking about his bad eyebrows and the fact that he looks like a gerbil with a high fade.
We need to teach our daughters that their right to be treated respectfully is directly tied to the rights of the person they are shaming. To okay it for one okays it for all.
From the book Clothes Make the Girl (Look Fat?): Adventures and Agonies in Fashion. Copyright © 2017 by Brittany Gibbons. Published by Dey Street Books. Reprinted by permission.