Folks, this one is personal for me. As someone with an ~ahem~ family history of disordered thinking about body image, it is very, very high on my priority list to get this right with my daughter. Dr. Renee Engeln, author of the book Beauty Sick, helps us sort through issues like:
- Should I tell my daughter she’s pretty?
- What should I say when she asks me if she’s pretty?
- Is teaching our daughters about media literacy – the ability to critique images they see in the media – enough to protect them, or not?
- …and so much more!
I know there’s a lot more to raising a girl than just this issue, and in time I hope to find another expert to discuss how we can raise daughters who aren’t limited by broader societal expectations, but there’s enough on this topic to make it an episode by itself.
In the show, we discuss a prompt you can use to write a self-compassionate letter to yourself as a way of recognizing all the amazing things your body can do. Professor Engeln actually sent me two of them; you can find these below.
You’ll have to listen to the episode to find out why this picture is here:
- Body-Compassion letter (based on Kristin Neff’s exercises available at self-compassion.org):
For the next 10 minutes, you will be writing a letter to yourself. The letter should be all about your body, but it should be from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend. Think about your body from the perspective of a friend who cares about you. What would your friend want to tell you about your body? If you run out of things to write, re-write what you already have, perhaps with different wording.
Think about this imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. Imagine that this friend can see all the strengths and all the weaknesses of your body, including any aspects of your body that you may view as flawed or imperfect. Reflect upon what this friend would say about your body, knowing that you are loved and accepted with your body exactly as it is, with all your body’s very human imperfections. This friend recognizes the limits of human nature and is kind and forgiving toward you. In his/her great wisdom, this friend understands your life history and the millions of things that have happened in your life to give you the body you have in this moment.
Write a letter to yourself, about your body, from the perspective of this imaginary friend. What would this friend say about your body from the perspective of unlimited compassion? How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the pain you feel if you tend to judge the flaws and imperfections of your body harshly? What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all bodies have both strengths and weaknesses? As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of his/her acceptance of your body, caring, and desire for your health and happiness. Above all else, be kind, understanding, and compassionate toward your body.
2. Body Functionality letter:
For the next 10 minutes, you will be writing a letter to yourself. The letter should be all about what your body does. Think about all your body does and how it helps you do the things you want to do each day. Focus on everything your body can do for you and write a letter to yourself about that topic. If you run out of things to write, re-write what you already have, perhaps with different wording.
Think about all the strengths of your body in terms of everything it can do. What has your body allowed you to do throughout your life? Think about the different parts of your body and how they each play a role in helping you do what you need to do each day.
Engeln, R. (2017). Beauty Sick: How the cultural obsession with appearance hurts girls and women. New York, NY: HarperCollins. (Affiliate link)
Fredrickson, B.L., Roberts, T.A., Noll, S.M., Quinn, D.M., & Twenge, J.M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75(1), 269-284.
Neff, K.D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5(1), 1-12.
Neff, K.D., & McGehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity 9, 225-240.
Jen: [00:39] Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode is going to be a difficult but an important one for me. So you all know that I have a daughter who’s heading towards being three and a half and a while back, we did an episode with Dr. Christia Brown where we talked about how the differences between boys and girls at a young age are almost entirely based on culture and socialization rather than on genetic factors and that’s still true, but I wanted to take the next step in thinking about this because it seems to me as there are the impacts of culture become magnified rather than diminished as girls get older. And the effects of that culture are really not kind to our girls. And I’ve seen this firsthand myself. Those of you who listen to my episode with Dr. Atle Dyregrov on the topic of talking with children about death know that my mother died when I was young and what I didn’t mention in that episode was that she was anorexic and she actually starved herself to death.
Jen: [01:32] So we talk about a lot of topics related to child development on this show. And for the most part I kind of feel as though I have some wiggle room and whether or not I get them right. But today we’re gonna talk about raising emotionally healthy girls, and I really feel as though this is one issue that I cannot and must not screw up. So this is a must listen episode if you have daughters, but if you only have sons I’d say don’t turn us off just yet because a lot of the things that make raising girls so difficult are related to how we raise our boys. So we’re going to cover a lot more detail on that topic in another episode very soon.
Jen: [02:06] So here to guide us through some of the issues related to helping girls develop a positive body. Image is professor Renee Engeln who is an award winning professor of psychology at Northwestern University. She’s the author of Beauty Sick: How The Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals and conferences and she speaks to groups across the country. Her TEDx talk at the University of Connecticut has more than 400,000 views on YouTube and she also blogs regularly for Psychology Today. Welcome Professor Engeln.
Dr. Engeln: [02:43] For me, beauty sickness is what happens when you get so worried about how you look when you get so caught up in the mirror that you don’t have the time and the energy and the resources left to put into the things that you really care about, to things that matter more to you than how you look.
Dr. Engeln: [03:11] So I think we want to think of it as a continuum, right? So I don’t know any woman who can never focus because she’s always thinking about how she looks, but I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t had those moments where you get distracted in the middle of an important meeting or where you’re late to something because you just can’t get your clothes looking quite like you want them to look or where you’re exhausted because you had to get up earlier in order to do more makeup and put more effort into your hair. So we pay these costs and a lot of little ways throughout the day and throughout our lives, but they add up to a cumulative effect.
Jen: [03:48] Yeah. I remember an example from the book about, I think it was girls and boys together at a prom event and the girls were all dressed in something that has to be hitched up and hitched down or something would be revealed and that’s sort of a facetious example, but if you imagine that it happens on a somewhat lesser scale on a daily basis in offices when you’re wearing heels and a skirt that you have to make sure you sit in the right way and…
Dr. Engeln: [04:10] And it, it takes you out of the moment, right? Yeah. I always tell people when I give that example of those girls I saw in that restaurant, I don’t care that they’re wearing strapless dresses or skirts are short. That’s not the issue. The issue is that it kept pulling them away from what they were doing. It kept interrupting their conversations. It’s like carving a little piece of your consciousness off and then dedicating it to solely monitoring how you look to make sure everything’s in place and everything looks okay and we don’t really see men having to focus on that in the same way women do.
Dr. Engeln: [04:55] Artemis was a high school girl when I talked to her. She was around 17 years old and Artemis estimated to me that she spent 50 percent of her mental energy thinking about how she looked and for her she was particularly focused on her body size. She thought she was too heavy.
Dr. Engeln: [05:12] She wanted to be thinner. She used the term brain space, which I really liked. So she said half my brain space is for thinking about my body; half of it slept for thinking about school. That’s how she experienced herself as being sort of carved up and this is the same girl who told me when I asked her about some of the goals she had, she said, well, I can’t really think about those goals. I can’t think about getting my brain where I want it to be until I get my body where I want it to be. That’s the kind of pressure we’re talking about.
Dr. Engeln: [05:49] And let’s be honest, there’s a lot of stigma in this culture around weight. We focus on appearance a lot, but it’s not true that changing how you look is going to magically open the door to happiness. If there’s no evidence that that is the case. There’s a great big literature on that out there on happiness and well-being and finding meaning in your life and the things you can pursue to get there. None of them have to do with spending more time in front of the mirror and they all have to do with spending less.
Dr. Engeln: [06:27] Absolutely. I say this in my book. I feel bad about it, but I mean it that I thank my lucky stars I did not have to be a young girl or an adolescent girl at a time when there was social media.
Dr. Engeln: [06:40] It is unbelievably hard and when I talk to young girls and teenagers and even young women through adulthood about what they face on social media, it is not a healthy scene out there. I had a girl who came to hear me talk, tell me that she posts a picture on Instagram and if she gets 50 likes then she can feel okay about how she looks that day, but if she doesn’t get 50 then she knows she doesn’t look okay and will spend the whole day worried about it. And this is not a healthy way to live. Right. Instagram likes are not a cure for low competence. If that worked, we’d only have to do it once; we’d throw a picture, you’d get some likes and you’d think, oh, right, I do feel good about how I look, but it’s never going to be enough and every time you post one of those pictures where you’re trying to look sexy or skinny or perfect or filtered or whatever you’re doing, it’s also making everyone who sees that picture, think about how they look and wonder if they look good enough and it perpetuates that cycle of focusing on how we look and how other women look. It takes up a lot of our mental energy.
Dr. Engeln: [08:05] I learned this from my students and it’s been a while, I think since they first showed me me; maybe even 10 years or so and it started with skinny arms, skinny arm. I feel like a lot of women know at this point when I see pictures of women online on Instagram or Facebook, it’s rare that they don’t have skinny arms, so that’s when you purchase your hand on your hip and get your arm out at a real sharp angle. Right? And my students tell me that so that your arm doesn’t smoosh against your body. Right? So it makes your arm looks skinnier and I think, oh, okay, that’s one thing.
Dr. Engeln: [08:34] And then they tell me there’s more, right? You have to turn slightly to the side, you have to pop your knee, you have to pull your chin out just a little to make sure you don’t have double chin, and then you need to tilt your head at just the right cant. And what they told me is that they do this automatically now when someone pulls out a phone. Someone’s going to take a picture. It’s just the pose you get into. It is hard. If you know people who are going to prom or homecoming or things like that and you see pictures online, it will be hard for you to find a picture without skinny arm.
Jen: [09:04] Yeah. I don’t look at a ton of prom pictures, but I had noticed there are a few younger people that I’m friends with on Facebook and I had seen them in this sort of standard position and hadn’t realized it had become so common and once you know what it is and you know all the components of it. You see it everywhere.
Dr. Engeln: [09:21] You see it everywhere and I think some people say, well, what’s so wrong with that? When I got headshots done for my book, the photographer told me of course, “At all weddings we tell women to pose like that because they’re just happy with how their arms look.”
Dr. Engeln: [09:38] In fact, I had them crop one of my pictures because it had a little bit of a skinny arm look to it and I’m just like, I’m not gonna do it. I’m not going to do it. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good in your pictures, but I think we want to step back and say there is something wrong when our young women and our adult women start to monitor their body poses the same way that professional models and celebrities do. You shouldn’t have to be thinking about it that much.
Dr. Engeln: [10:13] So I think it starts from an evolutionary seed, right? There are people who say, well, you’re never going to get rid of the focus on appearance, and I’m going to say, absolutely, I think that’s true, but what we’ve done is we’ve taken the basic human tendency to be aware of how other people look and magnified it in a way that earlier generations never could have imagined, right?
Dr. Engeln: [10:36] We have never had this much focus on appearance. Every perfected media image you see; everything on Instagram and Facebook. The messages we hear about women and how they look and the way it’s talked about constantly, it really has become a cultural obsession and there are a lot of elements women worry about when it comes to their bodies, but the dominant element for a lot of women is thinness; it’s the first focus, right, and it’s hard to get away from that. When you live in a culture that tells you this is important, this is what we’re looking at, and we will shame you if you at all deviate from the standard that we’ve set up, it’s hard not to be sensitive to that. It’s not vanity, right? It’s responding to a culture that’s just hammering you with this message over and over again
Jen: [11:31] And what role do you see for parents in all this. You know, I can see the pictures on the magazine covers on the newsstand and the kinds of people who are acting in and yes, they perpetuate a culture where thinness is seen as the ideal, but parents have a role to play in this too, right?
Dr. Engeln: [11:47] Parents absolutely have a role and a parent can have good effects and bad effects on this. The way I think about parenting is that you know what your values are. You know what kind of human beings you’re trying to turn your children into, right? The sort of qualities that you want to nurture and do you also know if you’re honest, that you’re going to at some point have to send them out into a world that maybe doesn’t value and reinforce those qualities, so the best thing you can do as a parent is to give your kids everything you have early on to show them what matters to you, to show them what your values are, and then you hope that it sticks. And unfortunately what often happens is that mothers are still feeling the pain of their own body image struggles and their daughters hear that pain, they see it, and what they learn is this is what it means to be a woman.
Dr. Engeln: [12:39] What it means to be a woman is to never, ever be happy with the way you are, right? It means to always think you need to lose 10 pounds or 20 pounds or whatever. It means standing in front of the mirror and poking and grim is saying and sucking in. It means wearing clothes that hurt you. Clothes that make you less able to move in the world and it means spending your money and your time trying to meet this beauty ideal. That’s what our little girls learn and when they learned that young, they carry it with them. We see body image struggles in five year old girls in seven year old girls. I’ve had a colleague not that long ago, show up to my office and say, my seven year old daughter told me that she’s fat and ugly. What do I do? When I ask women and young women, where did they learn to talk that way about their bodies? Almost always they tell me they learned it from the women in their lives, that they heard their mom talk about her own body that way. Or sometimes it’s a grandmother and her sister. We don’t mean to pass these things on, but I think it can happen.
Jen: [13:46] So that seems to me to be a very explicit kind of teaching. I mean the parent has never saying, you know, this is how you need to think about your body, but by saying those things and doing those things when the child is around, it seems to me to be fairly explicit. So I’m thinking, okay, if I don’t ever weigh myself when my daughter’s around, if I don’t ever really look at myself in the mirror, I don’t look at myself that much anyway, but if I just never do it when she’s around, if I never talk about my body weight or her body weight or anybody else’s body weight, is that sort of absence of the negative images, of the negative ideas enough? Or does there have to be some kind of balance of positive ideas as well?
Dr. Engeln: [14:33] Words matter. When we talk about something a lot, what we’re saying is this is important to us. When we dedicate a lot of conversational energy to it, so if we just stopped talking about how we look and about how other women look and you mentioned that and that’s really key too, right? It’s not just don’t disparage yourself, don’t disparage other women and stay away from the complimentary body talk too. Just talk about other things, but you can add some positive elements to talk about bodies in a different way. Right? Talk about bodies in terms of how we care for them, not how we whittle them into shape or punish them. Right? But how we take good care of them so that they’ll help us do what we want to do or talk about bodies in terms of their function in terms of getting stronger in terms of being able to move us around in the world, help us reach our goals. That’s the kind of body talk that’s helpful.
Jen: [15:26] And it seems as though also providing experiences could be really powerful as well. I actually, I got back from a 10 day backpacking trip in the north cascades national park a couple of weeks ago and my own sense of…as someone who has struggled with this over the years, my own sense of what my body can do and the amazing things it can do; I can put a backpack on that has everything I need in it for a substantial period of time and walk wherever I want to go and be completely self sufficient and just achieve incredible things and that’s the kind of experience that I got because I put myself in that situation and it seems as though if we can give our daughters those kinds of positive experiences as well as the things that we talk about, it could be helpful. What do you think?
Dr. Engeln: [16:09] I mean it with no hyperbole when I say that, I think our bodies are amazing and I think it’s important to stress that not everyone can do what you just did. Not all of our bodies are perfectly abled and many of us might struggle with illness, with chronic pain, with some type of disability. Your body is still amazing. I always remind people the arms that you’re worried that they’re smashing up against your body and looking too fat: those are what we use to hug the people we care about and your hands are what you use to express yourself and you don’t have to do a marathon to recognize that there is space for gratitude towards your body and when you start thinking about it that way, it opens a ton of doors. You can often do way more than you thought you could. The term I use a lot is “instruments not objects.” Your body is an instrument in this culture. When everyone’s looking at your body and talking about your parents all the time, it starts to feel like a decoration. It starts to feel like a thing you put on to show others. It is not your body’s fundamental purpose for being there is so that it can help you do things. You are an instrument and I think we want little girls to hear that message early; that they can do things.
Jen: [17:29] Yeah. Okay, so if I’m sort of starting down the right path of giving her the right messages, I’m thinking about external influences and in your book you described a pivotal moment that you went through when you started to realize that other people were looking at your body and you mentioned that you were at a party, you were wearing a dress and someone said, oh, you shouldn’t do somersaults like the other kids are doing. Because it wasn’t ladylike. And I went through a sort of similar moment myself. I was kind of older than you were… At my school we had to wear a special uniform for gym class and I’d forgotten mine one day and the gym teacher was looking through a box of clothes that had gotten left behind to find something that I could wear. And she asked me what size my waist was so she could find the right size skirt.
Jen: [18:14] And I was a pretty skinny kid and I didn’t even really think about it too much and I actually hadn’t measured myself before so I didn’t know. And I was like 24 inches? And the teacher was, you know, I guess we would kindly say that she was solidly built and she just kind of looked at me and resignedly said, I remember when I had a 24 inch waist and so you might think that my mother having died in the way that she did when I was young, I was pretty naive because nobody told us what had happened for a number of years. So it was really that interaction with that teacher. that was the first time I’d ever realized that your waist size is something that you could think about in that way. And so I guess it’s sort of a long winded way of saying I can do what I can, my husband can do what he can do to surround our daughter with these positive messages. But what if it’s some random comment from somebody that maybe is an insignificant person in your life otherwise that totally undoes it all? So what can we do about that?
Dr. Engeln: [19:10] These moments can be so powerful, right? And I love your story because what happened was you heard a woman tell you that she mourned the loss of a certain body shape. That’s a powerful thing to hear. Wait, I’m still going to worry about this when I’m older, right? I. I’m not ever going to get a break. It’s never going to be okay. That’s a terrible thing to hear. Sometimes people ask me, why are you so focused on individual behavior on what we can do individually? Part of that is because I’m a psychologist, that’s what we do, but part of it is because we have a lot more control over our own behavior than other people’s behavior. And so you’re right, your daughters will go out out in the world, and you cannot control that offhand fat-shaming comment. What you can do is try to inoculate them the best you can. To give them other platforms, other areas that they focus on, other sources of self esteem. So when those hits come in, they don’t hurt quite as much. And when your daughter gets a little older, the other thing I say is get her ready to be angry. Get her ready to be angry about living in a world where women hurt in this way because it is not fair and it is worth her asking who benefits benefits from women feeling bad about how they look. She doesn’t. You don’t. Let her question that let. Her find a source of power there. Someone asked me a while ago as a friend who’s about my age, I’m 41 and the friend said, I’m really afraid of aging. She said, there’s been a lot of power in my attractiveness.
Dr. Engeln: [20:53] I get a lot of attention. I like it. It’s reinforcing and I’m going to lose it and I’m scared. And what do you tell women about that? What do you do about that? And the answer to that actually relates to what I would suggest for little girls. What I say is that you build a foundation for your little girls that’s so strong, so full of other areas of interest and other attributes that even if a little of it gets knocked away, that has something to do with her appearance, she’s still got a good strong base to stand on that she knows that other things matter that that is not the sum total of who she is.
Jen: [21:30] Okay. I want to go back to something you said a minute ago. You said “who benefits from women thinking like this?” And I mean in a way we know who benefits, right? It’s people who were trying to sell us stuff to be thinner.
Jen: [21:41] And I’ve thought about this in a number of ways. I worked in sustainability consulting for a number of years and so thinking about the environment and why people do the things they do related to the environment and when I think about companies that pollute the environment or that have these products that try and convince us that we’re not thin enough or whatever it is, you think about them as a company but companies aren’t monolithic; they’re made up of people and a lot of people who work at those companies are parents and they’re worried about their daughters.
Jen: [22:11] And I actually worked at an advertising agency for awhile and pay my way through school and working there, although to my knowledge we didn’t actually produce any material that I would be ashamed of, but I wonder what goes through the minds of people, but particularly women who work on these kinds of ad campaigns that give these messages to our girls when they have children of their own. If there was somebody out there working for a company doing this right now, what would you say to them? I think many of them are trying to keep their jobs to support their families.
Dr. Engeln: [22:42] We understand that, but I also think we have a tendency not to think critically about these issues and we see it all the time when a company will release an ad that gets a terrible reception. I’m thinking of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad somewhat recently and you think who was in the room; who approved that? Because you’re right. It’s just people. Right? A bunch of people saw that and thought it was okay. Part of it is that we haven’t learned to really ask ourselves to stop and say, what are we communicating here? What are we telling people about what it means to be a woman or a good woman, a successful woman. So that’s part of it is I think there are people who don’t want to do harm and might be doing so accidentally, but I do think there are also people that know that making women feel vulnerable is a great way to sell products and there are whole industries built on it. Your eyelashes aren’t long enough. Your lips are not plumping up. Your skin is not fair enough or not dark enough or it has cellulite and you need to lose weight despite the fact that all available evidence suggested diets don’t work long-term for most people. To keep you buying. They have to keep you feeling bad. If you woke up in the morning feeling good about how you looked, I think of how many fewer products you would use.
Dr. Engeln: [24:02] Yeah. It’s sad to think about that. Yeah. I obviously don’t have an answer to what we should do about it moving forward, but maybe maybe if anyone’s listening who does work in these industries, just start asking questions about why, why we’re doing this.
Dr. Engeln: [24:18] Or start a business if you have the resources and the inclination. Right. This is another really powerful way for women to make an impact when they’ve had enough is to say I’m going to start a business that does things differently.
Jen: [24:30] Yeah. All right, so offer our little tangent again and back onto we kind of were what people that we know say to our children, to our daughters. So I mean I make a confession to you and to my listeners: I have never told my daughter that she is beautiful or pretty and sometimes my husband just cannot help himself and he blurts out, “you’re so cute.” Or sometimes he just mouths it to me: “she’s so cute,” but then I just give them a filthy look and he doesn’t say it again for a while. And so we try and be really careful about the messages we give to our daughter. But one of my listeners emailed me and said, we have two grandmothers who were close by and they just will not stop with the “You’re so cute,” “You’re so pretty” comments. And so I think based on our conversation so far, I am on the right track by not commenting on this, but secondly, if there are people who are important in our daughter’s lives and our grandparents should be, their grandparents should be important in our daughter’s lives and they are projecting a very different message than the one that we think is important, to what extent do we just kind of step back and let them have their own relationship with our children and to what extent do we draw the line and say, you know what? This is an issue that I feel so strongly about that we need to have a conversation about this and how do we have that conversation?
Dr. Engeln: [25:44] Of course it’s going to depend on the grandma. I’m lucky enough to still have to have my grandmothers with me and I can tell you that one of them thinks my book is ridiculous and she thinks that she thinks that in a very sweet way. She’s very proud that I wrote a book. She thinks that we should talk about how beautiful girls are and women are and that that’s good for them and that makes them feel good. Right? She doesn’t understand the bigger picture. And the first thing she says about any woman she meets is in reference to her appearance, she’s pretty; whether she’s not pretty. She’s 94. I’m not going to change that. here’s nothing I can say to change that. So in those moments, maybe the best you can do if she says “you’re so pretty” to your daughter, say “pretty hard working!” “Pretty generous!”
Dr. Engeln: [26:42] Maybe she’s doing cute things and that word is a little harder, but I also know that a lot of the women who are doing this really just haven’t thought about it. I’ve talked to some grandmothers who said I just didn’t think about it in this framework. I thought I was doing something good for my granddaughter’s self esteem. I was doing it on purpose even because I never felt pretty enough and I thought maybe if I tell her all the time, she’ll feel like she is. People telling you pretty is actually not going to make you feel pretty right.
Dr. Engeln: [27:11] We don’t have evidence for this. I still remember my mom telling me at some point I was beautiful and me saying, “Oh my God, you have to say that because you’re my mom.” It’s not enough. If you don’t believe the 50 likes on Instagram, you probably don’t believe grandma either.. It’s not going to solve the problem, but I think people are often more open to change and we give them credit for and I think when you frame it in terms of values, it can go along way. So if you say, we’ve decided that in our household we really don’t value focusing on someone’s appearance, so we’re working really hard not to talk about appearance anymore. I wonder if you could help us and I think people would be more on board than you think. They maybe just haven’t considered it before. And should you limit contact with people who aren’t?
Dr. Engeln: [27:57] You know, I don’t think grandma telling your daughter that she’s beautiful is the end of the world. It’s not that I never want any girl to hear that she’s beautiful. It’s that I want it to be just a blip on the radar and not an overwhelming force of nature. I want it to be just one more thing.
Dr. Engeln: [28:18] You know, I wish I had data on a lot and the truth is I don’t know a number. I don’t know how much is okay. I think it all depends on context and so it’s hard to say, but when parents ask me that, well, how often should I tell her she’s beautiful. Usually I say, well, less than you are now.
Dr. Engeln: [28:40] But I can tell you that I have a 19 month old niece, Gabriela and she doesn’t live nearby, but I Facetime her a lot, which is very fun and I decided when she was born that I would never mention how she looks, this is going to be my role as her aunt. I’m going to talk to her about everything except that and some people said, oh, it’s so mean. She’s going to think she’s ugly. That’s ridiculous, right? There’ll be plenty of people in her life that will talk to her about how she looks. I’m going to talk to her about everything else and I agree with you and your husband’s perspective that it can be hard because she’s cute! Kids’ clothes are cute too, often.
Dr. Engeln: [29:26] But I think when you see that little girl and your first instinct is to say how pretty, how cute, how adorable she is. It just takes practice to stop it and I have to work on it and I think it’s worth working on because that is not the first thing that comes to mind when we see boys. So it’s not that we never talk about boys being cute or handsome or whatever, but it’s not the first thing we say. It’s not our go-to comment. Quite frankly. It’s the same way with adult women. You meet a woman and you’re supposed to compliment something that she’s wearing or how her hair looks. Right. It takes practice to get away from that. We can do it.
Jen: [30:03] Yeah. So I am just thinking about what we could do instead. We could ask a girl. I mean my daughter’s a bit young for this right now, but when she’s a bit older, what book are you reading or what are you interested in right now? Or something like that instead?
Dr. Engeln: [30:15] Yeah, absolutely. Questions are the way to go. It’s a great way to engage children and to learn more about them. I think in general we do too much telling to children and not enough asking. I ask my niece, what are you doing? What does that toy, what are you playing with? How do you feel today? And she can’t talk that much, but she’s hearing those questions and the message is: I care about what you’re thinking. Yeah, I care about what doing, I care about how you feel, but I’ve never given you any inclination that how you look is what matters.
Jen: [30:47] Okay, so I hope this isn’t beating a dead horse here. We’ve talked about pretty much everybody on the planet and how they interact with our daughters, but we haven’t talked about their fathers yet, assuming they have a father who is in the picture. A couple of listeners wrote to me, one who is a father and wanted to know if there’s anything special that he should be doing to support his daughter’s healthy body image development and another woman who wrote and said, how can I communicate about these issues with my husband? He’s sympathetic, but he does not truly understand what it’s like to be a woman in America. So what would you say to our husbands?
Dr. Engeln: [31:19] It’s hard to share that understanding if you haven’t been there. But if you’re in a trusting relationship, you should be able to say, “trust me, this matters.” This hurts and you don’t want our daughter at age 10 telling you she’s ugly and fat and crying. So trust me on this, what can fathers do? They can do a lot of the same things mothers can do. Mothers have the added power of being able to role model their own body acceptance and send messages about womanhood in that way. But fathers can mentor that too, right? They can role model body acceptance as well. They can role model focusing on health, on strength, on things like that instead of on what your body looks like. They can also watch how they talk about other women. Not talking about who’s hot, who’s sexy. They can model a way of respecting women, of seeing them as full human beings.
Dr. Engeln: [32:18] When I talked to a lot of women for my book, I talked about the relationships with their moms a lot, put some of the women who were in the healthiest place, I would say in terms of body image – I think part of how they got there, based on their stories is they told me that they loved the way their fathers interacted with their mothers and I would say, well, does your Dad call your mother beautiful? Did he call her pretty? And they would say, no, he didn’t have to. I saw it and the affection that he showed, I saw it in the way he treated her, the way he’d reach out and touch her arm, the way he’d smile when he looked at her. Those moments stand out. They stick with you over your lifetime.
Jen: [33:02] Yeah. Okay. So you alluded to this a little bit already, but what happens when your daughter starts to ask, “am I pretty,” you know, my daughter’s just started calling things like necklaces that she makes and drawings that she makes pretty and I assume at some point this is going to morph and she’s gonna ask, “am I pretty? Do you think I’m pretty.” What do I say?
Dr. Engeln: [33:21] It’s really tough. Right? So when they’re younger, like your daughter is now my first impulse, and maybe this is the psychologist in me again, but my first impulse is to ask a question like, “oh, is being pretty important?”
Jen: [33:34] Gosh, I should carry that with me everywhere. It’s the, it’s the answer to so many things. We talked to a sex educator while back and you know, you get a difficult question about sex and your first question is supposed to be “why do you want to know?”
Dr. Engeln: [33:47] if you don’t want to make your daughter for like you’re blowing her off, but at a really young age, girls will throw around these terms without having really thought about that. So why not be the one to help her think about them? Is it important to be pretty? What does being pretty mean to you? And see if you can start to shape some of her ideas about prettiness. Maybe broaden those ideas and you can say things like, “oh, of course I think you’re pretty, but I also don’t think it matters that much because here’s what I think matters that much.” And, and sort of push in that direction when your daughter is older, I think you’ll probably have that day and I think it’s a really hard day for parents when she comes home and she does not feel pretty and she hurts and she wants you to help her feel better.
Dr. Engeln: [34:33] You can tell her she’s pretty. You can not. It’s not going to make a difference. What makes a difference in that moment is hearing her and listening and acknowledging her pain. You can tell her that you’ve hurt to over those issues before that, you know, it is hard to be a woman in this culture. You can think with her about some ways that you can fight back some ways that you can feel better. When I studied this a few years ago, I had a student who was really interested in mother daughter interactions around body image and we asked daughters who were maybe around 18, 19 at the time, “if you came home and said something like this to your mom, what did she say to you and what do you wish she had said?” And overall with the girls told us is that their mother said things like, “no, no, you’re beautiful.”
Dr. Engeln: [35:18] Or if the girls came home and said, I’m so fat, they said, “well, let’s go on a diet then.” They just wanted it to fix it up, patch it up. And what the girls told us is that they wanted more than that. They wanted to be asked questions. They wanted to be asked, why are you feeling this way? What happened? Right? What triggered this? Not just put a BANDAID on it. Right? But say let’s really look at where it hurts and let’s look at who hurt you and why. That’s a really powerful tool.
Jen: [35:59] Oh yeah. Sex ed. I’m fine. Yeah. We use correct body part names. I’m fine with sex ed, but the day when she comes home and says so and so called me fat or so and so said, I’m ugly. Yeah, that’s extremely anxiety provoking for me.
Dr. Engeln: [36:12] We don’t want our daughters to hurt the way we’ve heard. And I think it’s a terrible thing to know that no matter what, at some moments they will, but we can still give them a lot of padding. You can give them that secure base to come back to. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do as a parent.
Jen: [36:30] Okay. So you’ve mentioned a couple times now that telling people that they are pretty telling children, daughters that they’re pretty doesn’t help. And so that reminds me of Dove’s campaign for real beauty.
Dr. Engeln: [36:52] So I should first admit I have been moved by some of their videos. Absolutely. I get it. In a world where people make you feel ugly all the time, of course you like this idea that you could be made to feel beautiful, but I think Dove is going about it wrong and they may have very good intentions here. I think they probably do. But you are never going to help women feel better about their appearance by focusing more on appearance. When you say, Oh, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. What you’re saying is the most important thing you can be is beautiful, beautiful matters, and whatever you were thinking about before that, forget that. Start thinking about how you look and it does this doubly burdensome thing. It says, okay, so you live in this culture that makes you feel ugly because there’s a ridiculous beauty standard that most of us are never going to touch. But now it’s also your job to still find a way to feel good despite that,
Dr. Engeln: [38:00] You should also know that our parent company is one of the major providers of skin lightening creams in South Asia and Africa and also the parent company to Axe, which has made perhaps the most overtly misogynistic set of commercials we’ve seen that in a long time.
Jen: [38:17] Yeah. So it’s not that Unilever is an angel in this regard. They’ll still trying to sell us more stuff, but the underlying point is you want to feel as though you can make a difference and have a positive impact on a girl by saying, Oh, you, of course you’re beautiful. Even if tells you you’re not, but it does not help.
Dr. Engeln: [38:39] I’ve not seen evidence that it helps. Now I have had women say my Dad never called me beautiful and that hurt, but what I hear is I did not feel secure in my dad’s love. I don’t think just calling your daughter beautiful is the cure here. I think there’s something bigger going on.
Jen: [38:58] Yep. Okay, so I guess a slight non sequitur, something that I wanted to mention that I saw in the book was you talk about fat talk and which year lab renamed negative body talk. And I actually hadn’t ever heard of that before and I wonder if it’s just because I was missing that critical link with other female members of my family and once my mom was no longer around and I was also really introverted so I never had friends that I could have those kinds of conversations with. But can you tell us what this fat talk or a negative body talk is?
Dr. Engeln: [39:29] Yeah. If you talk to young women, they know what this is. They don’t know the term. All you have to do is start the conversation with them by saying like, “oh, so fat today.” And they know exactly what they’re supposed to say.
Dr. Engeln: [39:43] They’re supposed to say, “No you’re not. You’re not at all. You look great.” And then they’re probably going to throw in, “Look at me, look at these thighs.” And it’s going to go to this back and forth of like, I’m ugly, I’m ugly. No, I ugly. And then no one feels better. At the end of it. It’s the worst conversational outcome ever. It’s like you said something because you were hurting. You ended up accidentally making another girl hurt too, and you both still feel bad.
Dr. Engeln: [40:13] So when we study this, what a lot of women say is that they think it’s gonna make them feel better and this makes sense. I think particularly for women in this culture, when you’re hurting, you want to tell someone and I think that’s a good instinct usually. If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, absolutely you want to reach out and talk to someone about how you’re feeling, but body talk is different. If you say, I’m so depressed today, I’m really hurting, your friend is not going to be like, oh, you’re not depressed. I’m depressed. I mean, I hope not your friend’s kind of a jerk if that happens. But with fat talk it’s different. Because there’s this sense that we know women aren’t really supposed to feel good about their bodies. We preach body confidence, but we often don’t like it when,
Dr. Engeln: [41:04] It is your responsibility. That’s how we think about it in this culture is that if you’re not happy, you also have to feel bad about not being happy. It’s a terrible thing. But when it comes to fat talk, it can hurt other people and so there are good reasons not to do it right. It turns everyone else’s attention to how they look and you probably didn’t mean to do that, right? It doesn’t tend to really change things like you’ll occasionally hear girls use it to develop some where they’ll say, “oh, I ate too many donuts and I’m getting fat,” and their friend might say, “okay, well we’re going to go to the gym together, like starting tomorrow. We’re going to the gym every day” and what they usually say so they never follow up on those things, or maybe they do for like a day or they make the plans and then they celebrate the plants by getting ice cream. These aren’t really leading to sustainable health behaviors and read what they send the message of is that it’s okay to talk about women this way. If I talk about myself that way, how can I ask you not to do it? How can I ask strangers on the Internet not to do it, or political figures or celebrities.
Jen: [42:20] Okay. Alright. So as we sort of head towards a conclusion here, I want to try and end on a more optimistic note. So let’s shift and talk a little bit about what we can do to help our daughters develop a healthy relationship with their bodies. And I know that one thing that has been tried is media literacy programs because these messages about beauty and thinness and even what girls are capable of are everywhere in the media. Can you tell us what these interventions generally consist of and whether they’re effective?
Dr. Engeln: [42:51] There are a lot of media literacy interventions and some are more effective than others, but how I would summarize it is that even the best interventions had pretty small effects. So they’re focused on teaching girls to argue back, right? When they see these kinds of images say, wait, what’s going on here? Is that airbrush? Is that real? Is that healthy? Or they’re teaching you to be critical. I am all for raising our children to be critical consumers of media. I think that’s really important, but there’s an interesting paradox when it comes to media images of women is that sometimes what you see is that the more critical you are of them, the more you’re focusing on them. Does that make sense? So sometimes even in a study, if you bring someone in and say, well, you know, look at this image and criticize it, what you’ve done is asked her to look at it; you’ve asked her to pay attention to it.
Dr. Engeln: [43:56] What happens is that you look and say, “Oh really? I wonder where they did it.” And then you’re really focusing on the arms, the thighs, and the stomach. And the next thing you know, you’ve unwittingly given that image more power.
Dr. Engeln: [44:12] And you’re getting this subtle hint like, wow, this matters enough that someone paid to make it look this way. This must be really important. I’m all for media literacy, but I’m also just for less media of that sort. Just get it off your eyeballs as much as possible. Turn away it off, mute it, unfollow, don’t read it. Try to choose media. That leaves you feeling stronger and healthier instead of the other way around.
Jen: [44:40] And I’m wondering if you can tell us a couple of the comments that you saw when you presented girls and young women with pictures of obviously airbrushed, obviously thin women. What kinds of things would they say?
Dr. Engeln: [45:04] Right. And criticizing them, and fighting back a little bit. So we showed images like I’m just sort of full page magazine images. Maybe it’s a model in a bathing suit, and I wanted to see how the women who really argued against those images were different from the women who didn’t. There’s some women would look at them and they would say, “oh, for God’s sake, eat a sandwich.” They’d be like, “women’s bodies don’t look like that. You don’t have to look like that. She’s airbrushed, this isn’t healthy.” And they would just go at it. But then shockingly, what I found is that then they would often say a few lines down, “oh, I really wish I looked like that.” The one that always stands out to me is “her shoulders are airbrushed. I wish my shoulders looked like that.” And I think, “WHAT? You just said, they weren’t real.” But knowing it’s not real, it doesn’t mean you don’t want it. We want all kinds of things that we know are fantasy and that includes the fantasy body. So that’s why I think our best hope is to just not see it as much.
Jen: [46:07] Okay. All right. So two steps there then: not see it as much. But what you have to see, you know, you’re out. You’re driving past the billboard, your daughter sees it, you can’t unsee it. Then the media literacy and the critiquing the image comes into play?
Dr. Engeln: [46:36] So if I had to settle on two things, one of them we’ve talked about a little already and it’s focusing on function. Okay. Alright. So when we asked them to focus on their bodies, even in a positive way, when we asked them things like, “what’s the sexiest part of your body?”
Dr. Engeln: [46:50] “What part of your body do you really like how it looks?”, they often end up feeling worse, right? Because what they do is they’re just focusing then on their body and they start thinking about all their flaws. But when we ask women, “what’s the best thing you do with your arms?” Or “what do your legs allow you to do?” “What does your body give you?” When we ask them questions like that, they end up feeling better, not just about their body overall, but even how their body looks. So when you think about what your body does, you will also feel better about how you look. So one is focusing on function, but the one we haven’t talked about yet is self-compassion.
Dr. Engeln: [47:29] We’ve done some really just heartwarming research on this lately. Some of the students who work in my lab or sometimes say all his lab is so depressing, because you’r always finding all these awful things and it’s like “we got statistically significant results and they’re really awful.”
Dr. Engeln: [47:46] So this was our first really happy data, our self-compassion data. And we asked women to come in and write letters to themselves and there were different conditions, but one of the conditions as write a self-compassionate letter to their body where they would take the perspective of an unconditionally loving friend, right, and they would recognize our common humanity and our struggles and our imperfections, but do it in a compassionate way and I could sit all day and read those letters, and in fact, a lot of the women who wrote them in our study, they asked if they could bring them home. They liked them too.
Dr. Engeln: [48:25] Yeah. They wanted to keep them and I don’t blame them. I want to read them again and they’re not even my letters. They were stunning. The beautiful things, the beautiful ways I could think about their body when given that framework would just take your breath away. The things that they appreciated and the gratitude they felt and the kindness they showed. We know how to show kindness. We’re just not so good at showing it to ourselves and we are particularly not good at showing it to our bodies. If you are a woman in this culture, you’ve been taught to hate your body, to punish your body, to turn your body into something else, to constantly measure it up against the standard. It feels really different when you say, “Hey, body, I know it’s been hard, but you have done your best for me.” That feels really different. We have them spend 10 minutes on those letters and they felt a lot better afterward.
Jen: [49:30] That would be great. We’ll put it up in our show notes and anyone who’s listening who wants to do that can go ahead and do it. So yeah, I found a similar results… I saw somebody posted in a parenting group a while back on “my child has really low self esteem. What can I do to improve my child’s self-esteem?” And so I started doing research about self-esteem and totally was not expecting to find that. My podcast episode ended up being titled, “Don’t bother trying to increase your child’s self esteem.”
Jen: [50:07] Yeah. Yeah. So I got to your chapter in your book and was like, “Whoa, we’re already on the same page.” So awesome. Okay. So we’ll make that exercise available to people and also just in case anyone’s wondering. And Dr Engeln says that her lab meetings tend to be kind of on the depressing side and so the people in her lab show each other pictures of puppies to conclude their meetings and so we’re going to have a picture of puppies as the episode image for this episode. So if it seems like a non sequitur, it’s not, and now you’re in on the secret.
Jen: [50:51] So Dr. Engeln’s book Beauty Sick, How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women can be purchased on Amazon or in your local bookstore and references for the show today can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Beauty
Also published on Medium.