Monday, August 22, 2011

Awkward Birds

"Mom? Will you brush my hair?"

The question takes me by surprise; usually if I come within four feet of her head with a hairbrush, Greta runs away screaming.

"Sure, honey," I reply, smiling.  "I love it when you let me play with your hair."

We sit thoughtfull for a few minutes, while I work out the summer snarls. She loves to wear it loose and flowing around her shoulders, but it's so long now it tangles quickly.  In the summer it's a battle that isn't worth fighting, the please-lets-cut-your-hair-no-I-won't-I-hate-how-I-look-in-short-hair fight we have dozens of times during the school year.

"Do you know why I want you to brush my hair out?" Greta asks, quietly.  "Because I want to look like the teenagers on those posters."

My stomach gives a little tug of fear.  "Which posters?" I ask, keeping my voice neutral.

"The ones in Target?  In the shampoo section?  Their hair is so shiny. And wavy. Why isn't my hair wavy?"

I know the posters she means; they are all over the store. Oversized homages to perfection: teensy women in bikinis in the bathing suit section, dewy complected women in the facial cream aisle. And shiny-curled teens in the shampoo section.  I caught her staring at those posters the last time we were there, while I perused the wrinkle creams.  She gazed intently at the beaming teenagers, with their full heads of bouncy waves, before running her hand self-consciously through her own hair. 

The irony that my daughter was being drawn in by those posters while I searched in vain for a cream that would instantly take ten years off my face didn't escape me, but I left it alone.

"Your hair is beautiful. What's not to love about the Chocolate Waterfall?"  I say with a smile, using our pet name for her hair, which falls - stick straight - all the way down her back. It is an impossible deep, rich, dark brown.

"It's just that is doesn't have any curls," she pouts.  "How do those Target girls get such pretty curls?"

We have the same talk we've had before, about how she is perfect just the way she is, but I can tell that I'm losing the battle to peer pressure and glitzy media campaigns.   It breaks my heart a little to know that as young as eight, girls are already picking apart their own bodies, holding themselves up against unattainable perfection.

It makes me afraid.  Lately, as she steps out of the shower, Greta will stick her belly out comically far, and ask "What would you say if my belly looked like this?  Would you tell me I'm fat?"

Fat isn't a word we have ever used in our house. Even during my diet, we carefully avoided the f-word. I try my best not to let her see me gazing critically at my own body.  I never let her hear me disparage my own looks.  But who am I kidding?  I fall for the same ideals she does.  Why else would I spend so much on wrinkle creams?

She will run her hand over her impossibly tight, muscular belly, and tell me her stomach isn't as flat as so-and-so's.  

I swallow my fear and ask her what she means.  "My friend Melissa talks about how fat her tummy is all the time.  But her stomach is smaller than mine, so I must be fat, too?"

Oh, God, I think.  It's starting. 

"I want to show you something," I say.  We sit down at my laptop and Google "air brushing before and after".  Her mouth drops open as she points and says, "LOOK!  They made her neck longer!  And her boobs are bigger! And her butt is smaller!" 

It's a slippery slope, though.  Even as I part the curtain and show her what goes on behind the scenes to create images of perfection designed to make us feel badly about ourselves so we'll buy more product, I'm showing her that the world values long necks, big boobs and small butts.

"Do you think these women look better like that?" I ask.

She stares at the pictures for a while.  "No," she says, firmly. "They look too skinny. And like big, awkward birds or something."

"We'll have to keep talking about this," I say.  "Women spend a lot of time thinking about how they look. I do it sometimes, too. Instead of appreciating all that is beautiful about our bodies, we pick it apart. I hope you will keep talking to me about how you feel about yourself, even if you know I'm always going to tell you you are beautiful just the way you are."

She nods. "Is that why you always say that?  Because you want me to be happy about myself, and not sad?"

"Yes," I smile. "There are all these images our there that just aren't real, and it makes me sad that they can make us feel like somehow we aren't beautiful because we don't look like something that never existed in the first place."


Later, we're walking in the mall.  As we pass the Victoria's Secret store, she points to the life-size and scantily clad advertisement hanging in the front window and says, "Look, Mom!!  False Advertising!!!'

Score one for Mom.


  1. yes. i have these conversations often with my tween daughters. I have shown them the photoshop before and after videos and pictures, and we've talked about beauty being in all colors, cultures, shapes, and sizes. Its hard to combat the media barrage. But you did a great job, Ellie, and I'm glad she took your words to heart. I hope she keeps talking. And encouraging her own friends with the words you gave to her.

  2. I am so glad you brought this up, and thank you for the reminder that those aren't real women. I hope she keeps talking to you, that is so important. I have three boys and we have had discussions about the same topics, I am hoping I can get through to them what women really look like and not what the magazines/displays/posters show.

  3. I don't have daughters, just myself to remind that I am okay the way I am. Thank you for your words.

  4. "score one for mom" is right! I love how you tackled this with the airbrushing topic, and will definitely tuck it away for when my daughter is older and starts asking these questions.

  5. Wicked! These convos aren't easy, especially since my daughter has inherited my genes. I love the empowerment and will be using that google search!

  6. Score one for mom indeed!

    I've seen the beginnings of these thoughts with my eight year old recently, and it really is heartbreaking. We have been having similar talks at our house.

    I love that your daughter said they made the women look like awkward birds.

  7. What a wonderful response to your daughter! My daughters (age 29 and 35) were not subjected to much of this type of advertising. You are indeed a mother that rocks!

  8. Right now, I feel pretty good about where we stand in this battle. But it's not always easy. My daughter is tall for her age, built like my side of the family, which means she's 'solid'. There is nothing petite about her, nor has there ever been. None of the women on my side really could ever be mistaken for 'petite'. At my skinniest, the point where I had bones and veins sticking out, I still was a size 10. (How those models claim to be my height and 50 pounds less I do not understand. It must be the bone structure!).
    She's 9 and sees these teeny little girls in her class, who already comment on how cute and tiny they are and how 'big' she is.... And she always comes home with her eyes rolling, wondering when they are going to understand that we are all built differently.

    I can't take all the credit for it though. I have a few female cousins who were all built just like her at her age, that are now all tall (most of them are 6' or taller), with legs like you can't believe and their own style and presence, that take the time to hang out with her and encourage her. It most certainly takes a village.

  9. Right on and good for you both to be having this so important conversation. Body image is so central to how we see ourselves, if we can help our daughters have a healthy view then we have success!

    My daughter is about 5'8" and 100 pounds. Her father is 6'6" and maybe 210. She got his genes and is long, tall and all legs. What does she want? Curves and less height. We have many body image chats. Sigh.

  10. Great job handling this conversation. I dread having these conversations with my daughter when she is older. I've struggled with my self body image for a long time despite and even though I'm aware of it now, I wonder what will unconsciously rub off on my daughter. Have you seen this site?