We Focus on Our Daughters’ Bodies More Than Their Minds

By Lise Funderburg

O the Oprah magazine
August 2002

The task of raising a daughter is fraught with challenges, but helping her to have a healthy attitude about her body can be especially daunting. Rita Freedman, PhD, 62, the author of two books about body image, Beauty Bound and Bodylove, didn’t start researching the issue until her own daughter, Gwenyth Jackaway, was already in college. But Jackaway; now 40 says her mother had been doing a great job all along. Here, Freedman and Jackaway; a media studies professor at New York City’s Fordham University; talk about what worked — and why.

LISE FUNDERBURG: What’s a healthy body image?

RITA FREEDMAN: It’s accepting who you are physically. That means there’s enough room in your self-image for having a zit on your face, for illness and aging.

GWENYTH JACKAWAY: It’s feeling at home in your body, having a sense of ownership.

LF: What are some of the challenges of passing along a healthy body image to your daughter?

RF: Many parents feel that their children are an extension of themselves, and so their daughters have to look a certain way or else it reflects poorly upon them. I grew up having long braids, and taking care of them was a ritual with my mother. Many mothers enjoy that interaction with a daughter’s body making the braids, the ponytail. I didn’t have time for it with Gwenyth, and I didn’t have the inclination to display her that way. When she was about 3 or 4, I had her hair cut in a pixie so she could do it herself. I wanted her to be independent, in charge of her body. I think in ways like that, the choices you make are carried on. Your little girl might not meet your expectations, she may have blue eyes instead of brown or, like Gwenyth, be unexpectedly tiny; When she started school, she was one of the youngest in her class — and even though she was precocious, I worried how she would keep up athletically or socially. A parent will often worry: How can I make everything okay for my child? I want her to be happy, accepted, loved. I want her to be socially and sexually successful.

LF: So how do you deal with that worry?

RF: First, you need to reexamine your own feelings. Often they don’t come from a healthy place. I had to work on accepting that Gwenyth was going to be a short woman, just like her grandmother was.

GJ: I really don’t like being small; I’m 5 feet 1 inch. I’ve made peace with pretty much every part of my body, but if I had one thing to change, I’d make my legs five inches longer.

RF: You look at your child and say, What do I think is going to be a liability? Can I do something about it? Should I? I’ve worked with mothers who struggle with their daughters’ diets, caught between wanting to love their girls just the way they are and knowing that slimming down would make their daughters happier.

GJ: Or thinking they’d be happier.

RF: Maybe even knowing clearly that it would make a real difference in their social lives. You can correct something in an easy way and change a child’s life. Losing weight is not so drastic, but a nose job may be. The paradox is that one can be accepting of oneself and be working on oneself at the same time. You want your child to know she’s fundamentally okay; while recognizing she could make changes that might make her life better. You can tell tell her, “You’re good enough, and I love you just the way you are…and I can also be your collaborator in moving toward a goal.” In Gwenyth’s case, she found that standing up straight counteracted some of the effects of being shorter. For a girl who’s heavy; helping her learn to wear the colors and styles that accentuate the positives and de-emphasize the negatives she feels about her body might be very useful. And making sure she has clothes she likes, and not waiting to buy those clothes until she loses weight. I would suggest to my daughter that she choose carefully what she reads. If she’s constantly feeding herself images of thin girls, she’s going to be unhappy. If she reads about interests that are not image focused, like sports, she’s likely to come away feeling better about herself. I would also help her cultivate activities that take advantage of her attributes. In Gwenyth’s case, she became a gymnast because being small is an asset.

GJ: Here’s a good example of something that would have been a serious medical procedure and fundamentally altered my body. When I was a teenager, I had early breast development. I’m a small person and I had 34-DD breasts at 16 —

RF: Which you may not want in this story.

GJ: You wrote about it already!

RF: I didn’t put bra sizes in. [pause] Whatever.

GJ: It’s just a fact about my life. And I was really uncomfortable with the attention I was getting. I didn’t feel like I was being taken seriously. I begged for breast reduction surgery. Begged for it. And it was forbidden. Prohibited. At the time, I was really unhappy.

RF: And angry, probably, at me.

GJ: Yeah. But I’ve come to be glad I didn’t have surgery.

LF: So, Rita, what did you do to help Gwenyth through her discomfort?

RF: I tried to help her pick clothes that de-emphasized the part of herself she was self-conscious about. Then I pointed out to her that people with large breasts are often admired in our culture, that it’s considered sexy and that she would grow into her shape. She also had two grandmothers who were curvaceous, and I said, “This is who your family is. You’ve got to own this, just like you own your heritage.”

LF: But what about the begging and pleading?

RF: The best way to respond is to be empathic: “You’re not inventing it. Your peers can make life miserable for you, but you’re going to move through this.” You can say, “Let’s talk about this in a year.” That’s a good strategy when it comes to raising children. If you take an absolute stand, you’re likely to create a power struggle; if you take a sympathetic stand, you’re able to diffuse the issue. But it can be particularly hard to get through to a teen, who you have less control over and who is using her body in very rebellious ways. You have to grow a lot as a parent. I know I did.
LF: For example?
RF: When Gwenyth was in ninth grade, we moved to a new community. For the first day of school, she chose an outfit that was very revealing. We had a knock-down drag-out. Do you remember that?

GJ: I don’t remember the fight. I remember the pants; they were cool jeans, skin-tight, with panels down the sides.

RF: I said, “Absolutely not.” It was not negotiable because I thought that as a parent I wasn’t doing my job if I let her go to school, especially a new school, with a bare midriff and dressed in a way that seemed completely inappropriate. And it was sexually provocative.

GJ: I was displaying myself.

RF: So here I was doing a U-turn. All along I’d said, “Be your own person.” And all of a sudden I was saying, “No, you can’t do that.” You’re teaching your daughter to be comfortable in her body and with her sexuality, and very quickly she presents herself to the world in a sexual way. It’s very difficult for parents to accept that.

LF: What did Gwenyth wear to school that day?

RF: I don’t recall. But she didn’t wear that outfit. And she was very angry at me. I undermined our relationship in a way, but I was exerting my parental responsibility.

LF: How do we prepare our daughters to make good, sensible choices about their bodies once they’re out on their own?

RF: One thing is to help them develop resistance to peer pressure and the dictates of fashion. If you’re constantly altering your image to follow the trends, then your child becomes more vulnerable to that. Teach your daughters the difference between a temporary change — like a henna tattoo — and a permanent one, like breast reduction. You can give examples from your own experience of how what you once wanted isn’t what you’d want today. And keep the communication flowing by making it clear that you’re always there to talk. At least then you have some input. You can emphasize that you might not always agree but you’re willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue and take her seriously.

GJ: I’m grateful to my mother that I don’t have a sense of shame around my body or my sexuality. And I think this was because I was given a strong, positive message that the body’s natural, sexuality’s natural, there’s nothing wrong or dangerous or bad about them. One powerful thing my mother did was encourage me to pay attention to both my mind and my body. I feel astonishingly lucky to have you as my mother. I feel proud of my strength and my independence, and it’s very much because of what you’ve taught me. And I have a powerful model as I move into becoming a parent, about how to raise a strong, self-confident child. So thank you.

RF: Thank you. .

Lise Funderburg is a frequent O contributor.