Katie Willcox is a model, mother, author, activist, and founder of Healthy Is the New Skinny. She’s also the CEO of Natural Model Management, the top agency on the West Coast for models who represent health and attainable beauty standards for the average woman. Here, she shares her perspective on raising girls in a healthy, body-positive, life-affirming way.
Every mom wants to raise their daughters to be confident women—to love their bodies, trust their brains, and go with their gut instincts. And there are so many ways we can do this—but where should you start?
The most important thing, in my view, is to create an environment that validates their natural talents and abilities, especially because girls face more social pressure than boys to look and act a specific way. My husband and I speak frequently about how we’re going to raise our 19-month-old daughter, True, to be a self-assured and secure human being. A total boss, if you will (and I will!). The first thing we concluded is that it’s *not* our job to decide who she is as a person—that’s going to be her job. Ours is to love and accept the person she is.
Here’s how we’re creating a home where our daughter feels loved and accepted—and how you can do the same for your girls.
Promote unconditional love
Women in the body image workshops I teach often talk about how childhood experiences negatively affected their self-esteem. Not only did they feel judged by classmates and society, they also faced criticism from their parents. This can happen when girls experience physical appearance ideals in the home, expectations for high performance, and pressure to excel academically. That’s how children begin to learn the difference between conditional and unconditional love.
Some parents reading this might be thinking, “Challenging your child to be great isn’t a bad thing!” Let’s talk about that more. Of course, we all want our kids to reach their potential and live a good life, but projecting our own ideas onto them doesn’t give them the opportunity to define those beliefs for themselves.
Being conscious of our projections as parents allows our children to discover their own interests, talents, and abilities. Setting expectations for them to look a certain way, play a sport you love, or excel in school—when those things might go against their natural sense of self, body type, interest, and learning style—can pressure them to alter their authentic selves in order to gain more love from you as their parent. Alternatively, validating your child by celebrating the things that bring her joy is a beautiful example of unconditional love.
Open the lines of communication
One thing I love to teach in my book and lectures is the power of the subconscious mind.
Consider this: On average, we see 3,500 ads per day. The fascinating part is that we can recall very few, if any, of them. (Quick: What’s the last ad you scrolled past on Instagram?) What makes us vulnerable to advertising and media isn’t the images themselves; it’s our subconscious emotional response to the messaging they portray. The skinny beauty ideal is a perfect example. Have you ever stopped to analyze what it symbolizes and why it’s so powerful? Most likely you haven’t, because your subconscious has already internalized the fiction that you have to be skinny to be loved, accepted, successful, important, validated, and valued as a woman. (Spoiler: You don’t!)
Why am I telling you all of this? Because your child’s sense of self will be under attack every day by advertisers who want to profit off her emotions. The only way to battle this is to have open lines of communication about the images, expectations, and beliefs that are being forced upon her. This means talking about things like puberty, periods, sex, porn, healthy relationships, social media, body image, self-love, self-discovery, responsibility, purpose…and the list goes on!
If this sounds like a lot, consider the alternative. Your child will seek answers from the internet—and we all know that what she will finds will likely be inaccurate, to put it mildly. Children deserve better. And by creating trust without judgment, you’ll open those essential lines of communication that your child needs. Remember, these conversations are only awkward if you are.
Understand your influence
When it comes to body image, our children teach us how to love our bodies. True loves her belly! She sits comfortably without questioning how her body looks, she kisses herself in the mirror, and she never looks at me or my body with judgment because she hasn’t learned what that is yet. That’s the spirit I want to protect.
We are culturally disordered when it comes to health and wellness, and it’s okay to look at ways you partake in this dysfunction and have even brought that dysfunction into your home. How else are you going to make a change? That might involve speaking poorly about your own body or appearance—or someone else’s. It could involve dieting or creating the belief that certain foods are “bad.” Or maybe you weigh yourself regularly and teach your kids that weighing less is preferable to weighing more. Speaking highly of people in the media who portray an unrealistic ideal can also affect your child’s self-esteem and body image.
Now that you’re aware of some behaviors that hinder health (mental and physical) in your home, let’s talk about ways you can cultivate a more balanced approach to food and exercise.
1. Make eating healthy fun! Get the family involved in cooking healthy meals together.
2. Instead of focusing on “bad foods,” shift your focus to healthy, natural foods.
3. If your family eats healthy meals 70 percent percent of the time, then let yourself relax the other 30 percent. That means that if you want something sweet or are eating on the go, that’s okay! It’s all about balance.
4. Get active as a family! Your kids want nothing more then to spend time with you, even if you have to drag them away from the iPad. Once they get outside and have your attention, they love it. Remember, being healthy should include the entire family, not just one member who may struggle with his or her weight.
5. Speak positively about all bodies. Reinforce the belief that you are grateful for all that your body allows you to do each day.
6. Practice what you preach. You will be the greatest example to your children.
If you’ve struggled with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, or low self-esteem, you may find it difficult to be that role model for your children. If nothing else, be honest with them. Yes, you are the parent, but you are also a real, flawed person who is trying her best. Being vulnerable is important because it teaches children that they can also be vulnerable. We hope to teach our daughter this lesson—and so many others—through our actions instead of words. We hope you will, too.
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