Between you and me, I have a favorite niece. Don’t tell my other nieces and nephew, okay? Her name is Morgan. She’s a lot like me. In fact, my sister and I joke that if her husband and I had a baby she would look exactly like my niece. I was there the day Morgan was born and, now nine years old, I have watched her grow from a cute little baby to a beautiful young girl.
Over the holidays, I used my phone to take a photo of the two of us together (a favorite thing we like to do) and noticed that, as I was ready to snap the photo, she became incredibly aware of what she looked like. I could tell she wasn’t overly in love with it. This had never happened before and I realized that she was coming into that age where young girls often start to become sensitive about their appearance. In my head I muttered, “Oh sh*t!”
All I wanted to do was jump in front of that oncoming freight train of self-doubt or at least pull her off the platform so she wouldn’t board the train when it arrived. I wasted years of my youth on that train, hating myself, wishing I looked different, wishing my body wasn’t growing in a million different directions all at once, while hoping to be someone other than me. I look back now at all the time I wasted, just wasted!!
When I was in my tweens and teens praying to be anyone other than myself, I remember it feeling like a huge burden that I had to carry around, like a 50lb. backpack. Having a natural disposition towards self-doubt, there was little anyone could do to change this view of myself. This feeling lived inside of me. It wasn’t until years (and years) later that I was able to let the burden go. What I realize about my niece, or any young girl who is stuck on this journey, is that you can’t fix or change a girl’s mind once she feels the way she does. Once she has boarded this mindset, no matter how hard you try, she has to take the entire journey until she decides she’s done with it. It’s easy to just want to immediately snuff out any insecurity that a young girl has with words of encouragement or to tell them to stop feeling the way they do because, in our wiser years, we know what a stupid waste of time it is. However, it’s not that easy, unfortunately.
Looking back at myself when I was younger, I realize now that what got me through it were those people who always saw the positive in me, who stood for me when I couldn’t stand for myself, who authentically encouraged things about myself that I felt good about but didn’t feel confident enough to express. Nobody consciously wants to hate themselves or feel bad about who they are, yet, if they don’t have the chutzpah inside of them to ignore the negative voices and let the parts they are quietly proud of shine they often need the encouragement of those they look up to to coax it out.
I also look back and realize that what got me through hard times as a kid was having women around me who were confident, who did accept themselves, who did live fully and weren’t ashamed of who they were. Even if I didn’t know how to be that self-accepting or confident, myself, or even who that person was inside of me, I aspired to that. Way deep inside a small flame of self-love always flickered. These women stoked the fire and were beacons for me. When I think about them all I feel is unconditional love. It was to be a very long journey. I still stumble sometimes and when I do, I always look to my beacons.
Like all you mothers of daughters out there, all I want to do is protect my nieces from ever seeing themselves as anything other than beautiful girls and it hurts me to no end when I see the potential of that being any different. Therefore, when I read about a new body image obsession called “Thigh Gap” I wanted to rush to my nieces and hide them in a cave until they are past their teens. Thigh Gap is a new body obsession craze of striving for an inch or two of space between the thighs. What’s worse is Thigh Gap has a HUGE social media following and there are tons of Tumblr blogs on the topic. While you’re at it, also google the word “Thinspo” for quite an education. You can actually visit Matchstick Molly for tips on how to achieve a Thigh Gap. Ugh!
Needless to say, this new trend is scary and disturbing. But, do you throw your daughters and nieces in caves, like I want to do when I see something like this, or do you take a different approach? How do you protect young girls from being lured into the underbelly of negative body image?
I’m not ballsy enough to think I have the magic answer that will change the mindset of young girls suffering from insecurity, self-doubt or negative body image, however, what I can do is look back and see what I was hungry for when I was their age. I needed love, I needed validation, I needed to feel heard, I needed authentic encouragement, not Stuart Smalley “you’re good enough…” encouragement and I needed people to listen and to care about my thoughts even if I didn’t know how to articulate them well.
Reading an article on Thigh Gap in a Huffington Post article, it seems my thoughts aren’t that far off. A high school girl interviewed in the article “believes that the “thigh gap” fixation can open a new window of conversation about low self-esteem caused by an excessive focus on appearance, which can be remedied by focusing on inner beauty and the non-physical things that make someone special.”
It’s also important to point out that you don’t have to be a mother to positively influence a young girl’s life. What I feel I can often offer as an aunt is objectivity. This is not to say that my sister isn’t a wonderful parent, but it really does take a tribe. In addition, aunts are eternally cool and often having my niece compared to me, I find it exceptionally important that I show her just how awesome she can be just by accepting my own awesomeness and loving myself.
I wouldn’t trade a bucket of piss to be a tween or teen again, yet it is because of my journey that I can empathetically look at the journey of my niece and notice the signs. No matter what the future holds for my niece and how she views herself, one thing she will always be able to count on is that my love for her will always be there, especially if her own for herself is ever in doubt.