Yesterday I read an article that struck a personal chord. It is called Learning self-limiting attitudes about achievement (http://tdru.blogspot.com/2007/11/week-of-november-19.html). The part of the article that really hit home discussed the influence that parents and adults have in teaching their daughters appropriate gender performance (as if there is such a thing) and self-esteem.
This past thanksgiving I took a long-awaited trip to New York City to visit my family and enjoy the holiday. I have two younger sisters- Mia who is 8 years old and India who is 5. After a 7 hour drive I arrive at my mom’s house. As soon as my mama opens the door, I step inside and her tea cup Chihuahua begins yelping and jumping excitedly. Then I hear a small tired voice by the stairs to the second floor say “hi catherine.” I look over to see this beautiful round girl half my size with long twists in her hair. “MIA!!!” I scream. She ran over to me and wrapped her arms around my body squeezing so tight that I was actually surprised by her strength. Next, India comes running down the stairs, “Catherine’s home!” A petite little body with a round head and big wondrous eyes came and grabbed onto the other side of me, holding tight. It was one of those special moments that you never forget. When I saw Mia I remember thinking, wow, she has gotten thicker. As the weekend progressed my mama told me about the family and how everyone was doing. She told me that Mia had been saying, “I hate my body, I’m too fat.” She actually went as far as to say, “Mommy, I’m hideous.” My mom asked me to talk to her and try to make her feel better about herself. I instantly thought of Hardy Girls and our workshops about media. I thought, “I will do some media literacy… starting with the Disney princesses,” which are readily available pictures in my sister’s Ikea designed kiddy bedroom.
I told Mia that we were going to have special sister time since she was such a big girl now. I told her that I used to hate my body and then I learned where it was coming from. I learned that all these images of unattainable beauty are strategically placed around us to sell us products- makeup, lotions, shoes, clothes, bags, hair products, you name it. The images that accompany the ads sell 2 things- a mainstream popular idea of beauty and the product itself. She caught on right away, saying “Yeah, and Beyonce always wears a lot of makeup.” I then asked her about the Disney princesses, what did she see and how did the images make her feel. She said that they were white and skinny with long hair and dresses. She said, “Some people are ugly and some are pretty. The pretty ones look like that (the Disney princesses) and the ugly ones look like me (referring to her race and her weight). My heart hurt so badly for her. I said “Mia, Are these real women?” She paused for a minute looking off, then she said “NO”. I pined in, “These are drawings aren’t they? Someone created these images!” She started to join in, “Yeah, they aren’t real” all the while getting somewhat angry at the fact that she had been conned into hating herself based on a drawing. We went further and further into the conversation about different kinds of beauty, about magazines, the kids that tease her in school and about loving herself. I told that loving yourself is a choice you make everyday. Your idea of your own beauty should not be based on a magazine picture because they aren’t real images. They are retouched, bodies are redrawn, and makeup is repainted. Every ad is selling something and in order to make you buy a particular product they have to make you feel bad about yourself… like somehow you are not whole without this thing. Sadly though, the products themselves and the image of beauty are becoming one. It used to be that they used so called beautiful people to sell the ads; now, the beautiful people have become the ads. The product became Botox, breast augmentation, tummy tucks, and so on. Now the product is your own body and the media wants to sell you a new one. This conversation gets very sticky for me though because our mother has had plastic surgery. She is trying to stay “beautiful” (if that is something that can ever be lost) by looking young.
At the end of the talk, Mia and I made a poster that attaches to the family mirror. It says, “I am beautiful.” I told her when she forgets what beauty is, or begins to feel bad about herself… look in the mirror and read the sign to remind her. The media limits the definition of beauty with their images and so our own real images, our real reflections need to be our new personal media expanding the definition of beauty. Just as we are smiling, making the posters and feeling good about our bodies… my mother comes downstairs to model her outfit as she was getting ready to go out with a friend. She stands in the doorway… squeezes 2cm of the skin on her waist and says “Do I look fat in this?” I was so upset. Mia hadn’t really noticed (at least not consciously) and I signal to mom with my chopping hand shaped like a knife on my neck, and speak through quiet gritted teeth “Mom, that is part of the problem.”
We take for granted how many young girls mimic our actions and statements. Sometimes I fear what my sisters learned from me when they were younger before I left for college. In what ways did I teach them to hate themselves simply by stating that I hated myself? Now, after college and a ton of growth, I live 7 hours away from my sisters and I have learned to love myself, to embrace life, and to not let someone else’s definition of beauty define me. I am no longer there on a regular basis to be that influence, and so it is my challenge to live it; to be the living example of empowerment and strength for any girl that I may meet. This is my charge to you… LOVE YOURSELF for all that you are so that younger girls will grow up KNOWING that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.