Do you know what I most remember about the morning of Wednesday, November 9, 2016? The sadness I felt waking my daughter up to tell her what had unfolded across the night. This was my then 9-year-old, who had volunteered making calls with me at local Hillary headquarters. She had a Hillary t-shirt; she went to vote with me. She fell asleep that night on the couch as she started to make a list of each candidate’s electoral votes. We had both been so sure that a woman was finally going to be president.
I’m bracing myself now, worried that we are poised for a re-enactment of the devastation of that morning. There has been so much that has been difficult to explain to both of my kids (now 11 and 13 years old) in the past couple of years. I know I’m not alone; so many moms found themselves trying to discuss the Kavanaugh hearings with their daughters this past week. They explained what rape is long before they had planned to. What can we say to our daughters to ensure that the world they inhabit will exhibit far more respect for women than our current one?
No one wants to blame the victim, and there is no sense that Christine Blasey Ford bears any responsibility for the sexual assault she described in her powerful, heart-wrenching testimony. Still, when I think about my own daughter, I can’t help but wonder how I can raise her to be an empowered, confident, woman — one who can defend herself against the myriad assaults that girls and women encounter. In the most tragic and harrowing of circumstances, these are literal assaults. But the world is cruel and assailing in other ways, telling girls and women that they are not good enough, demanding that they spend all too much time and energy tending to their appearance (ask any mom of a teenaged daughter how much time girls spend watching beauty tutorials on YouTube), requiring that they accommodate others at the expense of their own wants, interests, and values.
One might think that girls’ (or women’s) self-conception bears only a distant relationship to how girls relate to boys (and women relate to men). But the research, on which I have worked (e.g., see this recent book) tells a different story — a story that links body image, self-conception and healthy sexuality in hopeful ways.
It turns out that how girls (and women) feel about our physical selves colors how we experience various aspects of our world — from interactions at school and work to dynamics within romantic relationships. And, I may be overly optimistic, but I believe moms can play a part in encouraging a daughter’s “body positivity.” Although body image researchers have spent decades lamenting the high rates of body dissatisfaction among girls and women, there is growing evidence that body positivity (a.k.a., positive body image) can be nurtured. Girls and women who maintain body positivity — self-respect, body appreciation and self-care — may be more protective of themselves both psychologically and physically.
It may seem counterintuitive, but fostering body positivity in our girls may require us to emphasize that we are more than just our bodies. Girls and women have been overvalued for our appearance since the beginning of time. But what if we all spent more energy focusing on our minds, our senses of humor, and our accomplishments?
Body positivity can also be nurtured by focusing on life outside of ourselves more often. Getting involved in causes that you care about and encouraging girls to do the same can have far-reaching benefits. We could all stand to think less about ourselves and more about animals at the SPCA or candidates running for office who represent issues that are important to us.
It’s also important to model and encourage self-care. Self-care includes healthy doses of exercise, plentiful sleep, and adequate nutrition. Talk about these behaviors as healthy behaviors, not obligations or avenues to appearance enhancement. After all, the sooner our girls understand the value of their bodies and appreciate that we all only get one body to live in for a lifetime, the better.
Finally, it’s important that girls and women practice protecting themselves. Sometimes body image researchers refer to this as “protective filtering” from “thinspiration” and other oppressive media influences. But, really, evidence suggests that filtering out people who aren’t supportive and even social groups that don’t share our values may be advantageous. Of course, we can’t avoid all media and all patriarchal institutions, but what if girls learned not to accommodate these institutions when accommodation means compromising their own desires?
Speaking of desires, women who report more body positivity also report experiencing more pleasurable sexual experiences and a greater sense of agency in their relationships. Body satisfaction even seems to make women more likely to initiate conversations about contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Again, the evidence suggests that when we feel good about ourselves, we look out for ourselves.
It is hard not to feel entirely discouraged by the events of the last weeks, months, and years. Sometimes, the world my daughter is growing up in feels far more hostile towards girls and women than I expected possible. But, there is also a rumbling of discontent. #MeToo and #TimesUp are not isolated movements. Girls are proudly wearing t-shirts that say “the future is female” and “girls change the world.” We have taken far too many punches in recent years, but we are not falling down. #GirlPower can be nurtured and should be taken seriously – and not just by girls!
P.S. – Want information about body positivity in easily accessible 2-minute video clips geared towards your daughter? Check out Body Positivity on YouTube! It’s the anti-beauty tutorial!
Charlotte Markey is a Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, where her research focuses on all things eating behavior, weight management, and body image. She is the author of Smart People Don’t Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently, which was called “possibly the best book about weight loss ever written” by Scientific American, and Body Positive: Understanding and Improving Body Image in Science and Practice (co-edited with Drs. Elizabeth Daniels and Meghan Gillen). She has been featured in and interviewed by The New York Times, The Economist, US News and World Report, The Today Show, HealthDay, ABC News, Time Magazine, Health Psychology, The Washington Post, Science Daily,NBC News, Psych Central, Men’s Health, as well as numerous other publications. She has also appeared on radio and television shows including NPR and PBS.