What do you do when you hear or just sense a girl criticizing her appearance?
I get questions from parents about this all the time. They want to help their tween and teen daughters reject the harmful stereotype of physical appearance. They recognize that systems of sexist oppression determine what our popular culture considers beautiful.
I call it the #BeautyBeast. This harmful beauty myth gobbles the self-confidence and self-acceptance that most young girls share proudly. It’s an oppressive system that works similarly to racism, ableism, classism, and other harmful ways of ranking human beings in power pyramids. The #BeautyBeast leaves room for only a very few people in the top 1%. Like other systems of oppression, we can help our girls fight it.
My thoughts on how to help your daughter resist the #BeautyBeast may surprise you. I’ve had the unique chance to listen deeply to more than a million girls since 1992. And, working collaboratively with girls has shaped my approach to this issue.
I think the best approach is to talk openly with girls about beauty. Don’t avoid the topic or the word. Ask girls and they will tell you how this word beautiful, and others such as pretty, cute, gorgeous, stunning, bootylicious, etc. takes up a lot of space in their world. As a result, girls are often triggered to feel self-doubt, jealousy, comparison of herself to media images and friends, and insecurity.
As fourteen-year-old Olivia said, “Why are we girls and women constantly put down because of our looks? The ads and media girls see are overwhelmingly filled with images of skinny, heavily made-up, light-skinned girls and women. Is it really better to have big breasts, “perfect” makeup, and waists that are SUPER skinny? We don’t have to keep feeling bad because we’re not “pretty enough!”
When we take the time to teach girls about the oppressive social system at the root of the beauty myth, and equip them with a powerful toolkit of actions they, their peers, and supportive adults can take, we prepare them for the real world they live in.
A Tough Conversation for Women
Many women have difficulty not judging our own appearance. This makes it extra hard to help girls with the appearance pressures they face every day. But avoiding talking about appearance with girls leaves a huge pink elephant in the middle of the room. When we don’t talk about beauty with them, girls are caught between our silence and the culture’s ear-splitting blaring of its harmful messages. We don’t want girls to think these problematic messages are accurate.
So when I feel judgmental about my own appearance, it’s a signal that I need to do whatever I can to reconnect with the value of my self and my body. Otherwise, I won’t be a very strong ally for girls in healthy resistance.
Help Her Resist the #BeautyBeast
Is it possible for you to help a girl feel beautiful? Should I even try? I say yes.
To help girls, every May for 19 years so far, New Moon Girls magazine puts out a new special issue that highlights some of the infinitely diverse ways girls are beautiful by being true to themselves. Girls always love this issue and feel inspired to recognize and claim their unique beauty. We make this “Beautiful Girls” issue every year to give girls a refuge from the #BeautyBeast. It strengthens their sense of how they’re beautiful without alteration or perfectionism. Recently, I made this short video to inspire parents and girl allies to work with their girls and build awareness of inner beauty. Here are two strategies the girls especially love.
Writing Seven Beauty Statements
This is an amazing thing you can do one-on-one or with a group of girls. Each of you writes seven different Inner Beauty Statements about yourself that aren’t about appearance. Next, write seven more Inner Beauty Statements about each other. Then, share them all and reflect on how that feels.
There are several things you can do with these seven beauty statements. Make a poster with them and add drawings or collage. Film yourself saying them out loud and watch the video every day for a month. Read the statements into an audiofile and listen to them each day for a month. After the first month, practice bringing your seven statements to mind whenever you find yourself comparing your appearance to someone else, and when you realize you haven’t spoken them to yourself recently.
This is an easy and powerful practice to interrupt the #BeautyBeast out in the world.
Writer and blogger Caitlin Boyle was tired of watching women pick themselves apart in front of the mirror. One day she grabbed a Post-it out of her purse and scribbled the note, “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!” She slapped it on the mirror of a public bathroom. With that one small act, Caitlin kick-started a movement.
In a matter of days, women and girls were undertaking their own feats of resistance, posting uplifting notes on gym lockers, diet shakes in supermarkets, weight-loss guides in bookstores, dressing room mirrors, on smartphone screens of friends, and anywhere else a nagging voice of self-criticism might lurk. Check out her book for tween and early teen girls, too.
All you need is a few pads of post-it notes in bright colors and some markers that will show up well on the colors of the post-its. Write a bunch of short positive messages, then take them with you and start putting them anywhere girls and women will see them!
Keep Practicing and Never Give Up
Staying positive when it comes to body image is difficult. Loving your body isn’t always easy, but being verbally positive about our own bodies creates a powerful example for girls on how to see themselves. So, the next time you wish the girl in your life would just see herself for the truly beautiful girl you know she is, remember how you can help her… and help yourself.