My oldest daughter is on the verge of turning 14. Every now and then I have these moments where I wish I could crawl into her mind and reside there for a single day. I know this must sound Freaky Friday-ish, but I can assure you my motives are strictly maternal. You see, the two of us have survived most of the waves that typically come to shore with this transitional time in female development. As my daughter has been transforming from a little girl to a young woman, our relationship has remained relatively intact. We have even survived the ups and downs of middle school friendships and boy-ships. The only lingering concern of mine is the category of her relationship with her own body. I wonder if, in the midst of all that has changed in her physical appearance and in the social landscape of her world, whether or not she has been able to cling to the truth that her body is for her and not for the world around her.
As a therapist who works predominantly with adolescent girls and women, I am all too familiar with the shift that an individual’s relationship with her own body can take in those tumultuous and formative pubescent years. Seemingly strong and confident girls can become increasingly insecure and extremely body-conscious. I find it hard to believe that the female brain is uniquely wired with the likes of a ticking-time bomb set to ameliorate any semblance of the girl’s previous sense of selfhood once breasts begin to form and hips begin to expand. I realize that hormones are a powerful force, but I tend to believe they are a force meant for our evolutionary and individual good as opposed to our psychological destruction. Regardless of the purpose our hormones serve, the pervasiveness of this pattern of self-abnegation in female development is undeniable. As a mom to four girls, the fighter in me is determined to do everything in my power to help write a different story with my own daughters.
There is at least one problem with this maternal desire: I’m not entirely sure how to fight this fight. There is a large body of evidence pointing toward a culture that persistently sexually objectifies women and girls as the primary culprit or instigator of female body image issues. Without making media the sole villain in this predicament, it is worth noting that one need only glance at a nearby television screen to identify endless images and messages (both overt and subtle) portraying women as objects and men as subjects. It seems that media is more often than not simply a reflection of the dominant set of values and beliefs, at least among those privileged with the power to influence such messaging.
Psychologists have long believed that we have a propensity as human beings to internalize the messages we are repeatedly told, especially during early stages of development and throughout childhood. Rather than this psychological tenet sending me on a cynical and disempowered downward spiral into a puddle of helplessness against this great and powerful cultural monster, it actually opens up my capacity to hope for change. I know that I am only one voice, albeit a rather significant voice, in the lives of my daughters, but nonetheless I do have the power to deliver a counter-cultural message. I can speak a different message to my girls, but I can also choose to model what it looks like to cling tightly to the truth that my body is for me and not for the world around me. I can learn how to reclaim my agency and reject the invitation to live into being an object of pleasure for others.
In recent years I have become increasingly encouraged by the peppering of some new messaging emerging in media, literature and film. The popularity of children’s movies like Brave, Tangled and Frozen as well as the young adult genre with books being made into films like The Hunger Games and Divergent, is reflective of a broader acceptance of female subjectivity and agency. Not only are there female protaganists present in each of these films, but the characters exude an ownership of their own lives as opposed to the narrative simply happening to them. Could this shift be the rippling effect of third-wave feminism? I certainly hope so because that would reaffirm that this fight extends beyond the walls of my own household.
In theory, all of this sounds doable. In the day-to-day, however, I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to live counter-culturally. Excavating the messages that I have internalized is at the center of this battle. When I hesitate to leave my house without makeup, I am reminded of the deeply embedded message that my beauty is dependent upon wearing a mask. When I read the story of a woman who recently underwent a preemptive double mastectomy and I automatically presume she’ll undergo reconstructive surgery, I am reminded of the deeply embedded message that our breasts are one of our greatest physical attributes. When I opt out of jumping in the pool to play with my clan of all girls because a swimsuit reveals the ways my body has been impacted by the birthing and nursing of the ones I’m lucky enough to call my children, I am reminded of the deeply embedded message that my worth is defined by my culturally-deemed desirability. These are the messages I am working so hard to unlearn and push against. Perhaps if I do enough excavating, my daughter’s will have a chance at internallizing an entirely different set of messages.