Have you seen the new Always ad campaign? If not, I’ve attached the video to this post. As a mother of two young girls and a doctor to many, this marketing ploy made me stop and really think – how do our girls see themselves? What do they believe they are capable of accomplishing? What facets of their personhood do they believe really matter?
We have all witnessed the change in self-esteem that accompanies puberty in kids, both girls and boys. For many girls though, the pressure to look and act a certain way begins to reign paramount to a once strong interest in academics and sports. For the girls who continue to excel in the classroom and on the field, their success in these realms is often tempered by their physical appeal. Do they successfully emulate the images they see around them constantly?
It is a lot to ask of anyone, much less someone who is still trying to figure out their place in the world, to look beautiful, maintain school success and excel in sports. In fact, this impossibility of perfection is the source of much self-loathing. As a pediatrician, I see an unprecedented number of young girls facing functionally impairing anxiety and depression. I really believe a great deal of this mental illness stems from unrealistic ideals of personal achievement on all fronts – from physical attributes to global success, fed by media images that are distorted to the point of fiction but presented as truth.
What can we do as parents to support our daughters’ sense of self?
- Compliment them on running, writing, reading, throwing, and acting “like a girl”. Show your daughters the attached Always video. Let’s turn a phrase that should embody strength and beauty into one that actually captures the traits we admire in our daughters and ourselves.
- Remember to notice and compliment academic success, problem-solving skills and stubborn perseverance; rather than just cuteness, politeness and ease of disposition.
- Expect them to figure “it” out on their own, when safe to do so, in order to become self-reliant – this is especially important in a girl’s interactions with her father – he cannot always solve the problem for her. She needs the opportunity to both try and fail, and then try once again.
- Do not be overly focused on our own appearance as mothers. Attempting, as hard as it is sometimes, to be appreciative of our healthy bodies and proud of our real physiques. Our girls see our personal critique and they internalize it. Our own self-deprecation negatively affects our daughters’ self-esteem.
- Watch how we talk about other women in our daughter’s presence. Constant commentary on another mom’s appearance makes it seem like this is what matters about these women. We all know, as adults, that this is hardly scratching the surface of who these women are—but do our daughters see this truth?
- Avoid our own stereotypes in raising our daughters – it’s ok if your son helps cook dinner and it is definitely ok if your daughter helps Dad with the Honey-do list. It seems silly, but defining these tasks for our children does create the expectation of gender specific roles. Although, your daughter may naturally choose domesticity in adulthood, this should not be predetermined for them by us. I really believe a greater sense of self-worth accompanies the knowledge that you can effectively complete typically male tasks as well as any other.
- Resist overprotection. Unless we let our daughters’ explore their world and their sense of self somewhat independently, how can we expect them to grow as self-sufficient, self-reliant individuals? If you are never forced to think about complex issues and problem solve effective solutions, how will you develop the skills to do so? We all want so badly to protect our kids, me included, that we often do them a disservice in sheltering them from failure and loss. We talk to them like they don’t understand, when in reality, they understand a great deal.
I played this video for my kids tonight and my girls, ages 6 and 7, kept giggling at the first part – the girls making fun of “girls”, but then they understood. They were quiet and thoughtful, at ages 6 and 7. Running like a girl just means running like yourself.