There were packs of bright markers, pastel stickers and stamp sets on each of the tables at the self-esteem workshops Dove held during the 2013 Mom 2.0 Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA over the weekend. The attendees all had looseleaf paper in front of them, but only the 13-year-old members of a local Girls Inc. group, sitting beside mom bloggers and business owners, wrote the date in the corner and drew their names in flowery letters immediately. Watching those kids, I was transported back to middle school.
It is the age I fear most for my own daughter -- with all the awkwardness, broken hearts and mean girls. Yes, she is only 3 now and I have some time. But in preparation for the first moment when she wonders whether she is pretty or cool enough or thinks she needs to diet or hates her nose or boobs or thighs, I have vowed to do what I can to instill confidence in my girl. I tell her she is smart, not just that she is cute or pretty. I coo over how beautiful she is too. I try -- and it is a struggle -- not to say "I'm fat" or kvetch about my hair in front of her, no matter how hard I am being on myself in my own head. But sometimes I slip, and when that happens, I just think, I'll do better next time, she hasn't mimicked me yet.
And then, I sat in this workshop. Led by Dove's Global Self-Esteem Ambassador Jess Weiner, its focus was on ways in which girls’ families -– not bullies, not our culture -- hold them back. The statistic we heard many times over is that 6 out of 10 girls stop doing something they love because they are self-conscious about their looks -- and as parents, we can change that.
Julia* was the most outgoing and self-assured tween at my table. She does not want to be a writer, she told me when I said I work for a news website. She loves biology. When Weiner asked for some examples of what makes girls stoppable, Julia answered first: "The media." She seemed abundantly together.
The most personal and revealing exercise Weiner led the group through was writing our "family body image history." First, we were to list statements that the women in our lives -- moms, sisters, friends -- make about their appearance, in front of us. Then, Weiner said to write down how each of those statements makes us feel -- “E-mot-ions,” she clarified enunciating every syllable of the word. “Words like stupid or dumb are not e-mot-ions.” And, finally she asked each of us to write down what we wanted to do about it all.
This, with her permission to post it online, is what Julia wrote down:
That last statement Julia attributed to her mom gave me chills. And my table-mate wasn't the only girl in the room to hear her mother's shame as personal wrong-doing. Another 13-year-old said that she often hears her mom say, "I want my old body back," which makes the girl wonder if it is her fault that Mom has a "new" body at all.
Listening to them, I realized that I need to model confidence for my daughter because she is learning from me, yes, but also because putting myself down hurts her. She needs me to be happy. Because she is still a child, her strength depends on mine. Keeping her safe isn't just a matter of controlling external factors like how much money we have or the neighborhood we live in. It means tackling what's on the inside, being as secure in my own skin as I want her to be in the world.
We ended the workshop writing "Confidence Cards." Business card-sized things with fill-in-the-blank statements like: "You are _____." and "You have a beautiful _____." We were making them for the family members and friends whose statements were on our worksheets. For Julia, that was her mother and her sister. But Weiner also suggested giving cards to women you haven't met yet. She said, "Tuck one in the mirror in the ladies room! Leave another at a bus stop!"
And so, dear Julia, I am saving these photos of your cards for a girl you don't know and her mother, who you met only briefly. Along with your insights, they are a gift you didn't realize you were giving me. Next time I fumble, if I let shaming thoughts in my head get too loud and seep into my daughter's world, your words will remind me to be better. And when my baby does grow up, they will remind her that she is graceful, strong, unique, beautiful and talented.
* Name has been changed for privacy.