I’ll never forget what a girl in my 9th grade Biology class asked me one day.
Clarissa and I had become friends, in a brother-sister kind of way, over the course of the semester as we dissected frogs together and secretly made fun of our teacher for using a microphone to teach our class of 30 students.
Towards the end of the semester, Clarissa began opening up to me about personal things. She talked about how she thought her lips were too big – and not in the facetious sort of way that I might flex and ask which way to the weight room.
I mean, she was truly self-conscious about her lips and even mentioned lip reduction surgery. One day as we were sitting in class, our teacher’s amplified voice booming over us, she turned to me and asked a question I’ll never forget:
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
I was dumbstruck. It was such a vulnerable question and, honestly, it tears me up inside when I think back all these years later because, in that moment, it seemed as if her entire self-worth hung in the balance for my answer. With one word, I could have crushed her.
Even if I’m wrong about how Clarissa defined her self-worth – and I hope I am – I am not wrong in saying that our culture sends the message to our daughters that self-worth is defined by physical appearance, day-in and day-out.
And if our daughters internalize this skewed way of thinking, they begin to hyper-focus on the ways their own bodies don’t measure up to culture’s ideal. This then leads to destructive measures for some who try to fix or cope with the issue – measures like self-hatred, bulimia, and over-eating.
As dads, we can loose the raging warrior inside and fight for our daughters by pointing out this unhealthy way of thinking. We can teach them that true beauty and self-worth is holistic and considers every facet of who they are.
Here are some ways you can join the fight:
Refuse to treat women as sexual objects
Pop culture bombards our daughters with the message that a woman’s best use is in her sexuality. Well, I disagree with pop culture’s summation of women. We can combat this message by praising non-sexualized role models, like Ginni Rometty (CEO of IBM) and Tina Fey (comedian, actress, author, etc.) and by simply telling our daughters when we’re bothered by the over-sexualization of women.
Be close to her
Research suggests that girls with limited or no father figures in their lives are “two to three times more likely to have problems in regard to depression, aggression, delinquency, teenage pregnancy, school failure, academic underachievement…” and the list goes on.
One of the best things we can do to help our daughters have a healthy body image – and a healthy view of life in general – is to be close to them. Take them on dates, tell them about our feelings, give them advice, and tell them we love them.
Praise her for who she is
If we praise our daughters for every facet of who they are, they will begin to internalize this and can begin to shake off culture’s message that their value comes from their appearance. We can choose to praise our daughters for their character, intellect, and the choices that they make.
Be mindful of your gaze
Our daughters notice our gaze. I don’t fully understand why this is, but they are aware of what or who we do double takes on and where our eyes linger. If we are constantly giving attention to women based on how much skin they show, we are sending the message that love, through attention, is earned by dressing or looking a certain way.
Tell her she’s beautiful
We should never stop telling our daughters they are beautiful.
Be mindful of your words
I’ve been around men who have no problem making gratuitous sexual comments about women. “Men will be men,” some may say. Fathers who want their daughters to have a healthy body image should think about what it means to be a man.
When we say a woman is hot, thin, fat, or ugly, we are indirectly communicating to our daughters that they, too, should or shouldn’t look a certain way, thereby placing an unhealthy emphasis on their appearance.
Treat food neutrally
Let food be food.
Be mindful of your own body image
Most of us men actually care about how we look, though we may not readily admit it. If we frequently comment about how we need to lose weight, go to the gym, or eat better, we are indirectly facilitating the sort of unhealthy internal dialogue that will continually try to take up residence in our daughters’ minds.
Do all of these things for your wife, too
The way you treat your wife will be the way your daughter will expect to be treated. If you value and praise your wife for all of her attributes – including her beauty – you will help your daughter learn to value herself for those same attributes.
Make a pact with me
That day in Biology class, I am glad to say that, despite being a clueless teenage boy, I told Clarissa that I thought she was pretty. But as fathers (and mothers), we have the opportunity to raise daughters who don’t need to rely on others’ opinions about their appearance to define their worth.
Let’s change our daughters’ lives.