It’s Halloween, and my 11-year-old daughter – in costume – is admiring herself in the mirror. I’ve seen her do that before, when she is wearing something she particularly likes. It’s something I actually love to watch her doing, because she is always pleased with what she sees in the mirror.
She is always pleased with what she sees in the mirror.
Can you say that about yourself?
I’ve watched her do that many times before. New shoes, a dress she picked out, fancy earrings, a hairpiece or hairdo … her bikini … or even just a face-painted design. It’s particularly fun for me when she puts together an ensemble or certain ‘look’ – she is so proud of herself, so happy with what she came up with, and how she looks in it.
And I’m happy to see that. So very, very, happy.
It was my admiring her self-admiration this morning when a few things really hit me. I’ll say the first thing again: She is always pleased with what she sees in the mirror.
I’m not. I never have been, at least as far as I can remember; however, my father might tell you something different. One of the many things he told me regularly when I was younger that I was vain; his famous line was that “Susie is so vain. She can’t walk by a mirror without admiring herself.” He still says that now, in past tense.
He was both right and wrong. A mirror did stop me – but it was not for admiration; it was for a checkup, to make sure what I wanted hidden or camouflaged was hidden or camouflaged. I was almost never admiring myself, because I was almost never happy with what I saw in the mirror – even at my daughter’s age.
I was told I was fat regularly, and in a variety of creative ways: “You’d better lay off the ice cream, Cheeks.” and “I don’t understand how those legs of yours can hold you up!” and “Fat people are the loneliest people in the world.” and (if I reached for seconds at the dinner table) “Do you really need that?” I remember one time my aunt had mentioned that I lost weight. She said to my father, “Don’t you think so?” His answer? “Yes. But I’m not going to tell her that; she’ll stop.”
I have to point out that this is not complaining. This is simple recounting of what happened. The one thing I had and have always known is that my father’s intentions were and are always in the right place – he just went about it wrong (yes, I am saying that). I even told him that back then that I needed encouragement, not ‘breaking’. But Dad was a drill instructor who’d had his own brand of parenting (like all people), and he did the best he could with what he had. As angry and as hurt as I would get about the things he said – and as many times as I would try to get through to him without success, I would console myself a teeny bit with the thought: “He’s an idiot.”
Honestly? I hope that my own kids think of me that way. That I did the best that I could with what I had. That my intentions were in the right place. That I was an idiot.
Being happy with how you look is not vanity. Caring only about how you look is.
As children, we learn about the idea of being happy with ourselves in stages. How we look is first. Think about it, what were the first five years or so of our lives about? What did we hear all the time? “Oooh … she’s/he’s adorable!” “How cute is she/he?”
Our first frame of reference for judging ourselves is our appearance. Kids believe they are ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’ and beautiful’ because that’s what everyone told them, all the time. Then they get a little older and go to school and begin to hear other things; they begin to understand the barrage of advertisements on the radio and television and learn about what makes certain celebrities so popular. Then, they make comparisons with themselves and others.
The second stage is usually learned as a consolation: “She may be very pretty/thin/popular, but she’s not a nice person, and being nice is important.”
Well, that always made me feel better.
Being happy with yourself is not about how you look; it’s about how you feel about yourself as a person – but none of us realize that until well after childhood, when we’ve had relationships (romantic, friendships, and work- or team-related) and we’ve had the chance to experience other types of contrast.
An initial negative self-image sets the stage for more negativity. No, I couldn’t walk past a mirror without stopping for damage control – and all I saw when I looked was my flaws, something that got worse as I got older and knew there were more to see.
Positive self-image starts somewhere. Children are set up with all the ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ and ‘awwws’ they hear. When they start thinking to believe it, let them. Even when they choose an outfit that is mismatched, or want to wear a Batman cape to school every day – even if you yourself think they look fat in that bathing suit (you can be honest with yourself, right? Remember, you’ve been ‘programmed’, too).
When children start off admiring themselves in mirrors, they will be more likely to continue looking for what they like in them, rather than looking for things to tear apart.
Tell them they are smart. Praise them when they show foresight. Encourage them to think positively about everyone around them. Teach them that opinions of others don’t need to affect them (without being too harsh on others). Let them know that what they like is perfect for them, and should never be changed for anyone else.
But remember, their first 50,000 compliments and words of encouragement heard all had to do with how they looked. Let them be happy with how they look. Let them make decisions on what they think looks good for them. They will learn to make the ‘what’s right for them’ choices a little earlier, even with outside differences of opinion – that starts off smaller at younger ages, and they can learn it in small bites. Then, they will grow into making more and bigger ‘what’s right for them’ choices.
This will change the programming. It’s up to us to support it – despite our own ingrained ‘stuff’.
Think it doesn’t matter? I grew up believing I was fat and stupid. I hated myself, all the way up until I began to see that I did not have to accept others’ opinions of me as my own – and then, I had to fight myself to stop believing it (and still fighting). That’s taken a lot of time. Having to spend time erasing takes time away from moving forward.
Four months ago, I was with my father and he made a reference to me being skinny. When I say it stopped me in my tracks, I am totally understating how it affected me. I said to him later that I never (never) thought I would hear him say that about me. He said in surprise, “That was thirty years ago!”
(I’m smiling as I say that.)
He and I will probably not always see eye to eye. We grew up with different experiences and different types of programming. He may not even believe in programming the way that I do. Because I am me, if he ever sees my daughter admiring herself in a mirror and dares to comment on it (and I know he will), I will probably feel compelled to line up more mirrors so she has more to look at (and he knows I will)!
There is much more to being happy with yourself than just how you look – but it has to start somewhere. I struggle to make sure my daughters don’t have the same poor body image that I had/have. My older daughter doesn’t have a great body image, but it is better than mine was. Maybe my younger’s will be even better. And, hopefully, they will both think I’m an idiot.
Without-getting-into-it-now-but-feeling-the-need-to-acknowledge-it: I understand there is much more to the dynamics of body image, self-worth and the idea of ‘programming’ (I’m sure I’ll be getting into that, later) – but let’s take this in small bites.
Let children love themselves – every single part of them. Relearn the love you had for yourself before you were told there was less to love.
A word about selfies: is it a sign of insecurity to post a picture of yourself when you think you look good? Or is it a statement to the world that “I think I look good and that’s all that matters!” Doesn’t that ‘insecurity’ stem from the perception of what others think and why? You are allowed to take pride in being happy with how you look; you are allowed to love every aspect of yourself.
Look in the mirror. Smile. Be happy with what you see. All of it. It’s all yours.