Lately, I’ve been watching my daughter look at herself in the mirror. It’s fascinating to see her considering herself, turning from side to side, putting her hair up and down (and up and down). At 9 years old, Sabrina seems pleased with her appearance … but not completely so, as I discovered when we stopped by an ice-cream store the other day. She spent a good part of it gazing into the mirror in front of the counter we sat at.
“Mommy, my face is chubby, and yours is a different shape!” she said.
I corrected her: “Honey, there are all kinds of face shapes,” I said. “Yours is round, mine is oval.”
“No, it’s chubby!” she insisted.
“Hmm, did someone tell you that?” I asked.
She mentioned a girl at school.
From all the bashing Barbie’s getting lately, it seems like people think dolls are mostly to blame for girls’ self-image issues. After Mattel V.P. Kim Culmone told Fast Company, “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic,” a lot of hand-wringing ensued over Barbie’s unrealistic proportions. Yet dolls are just one of the many ways our girls form visions of themselves and their shapes. (In fact, given Barbie’s 150 careers, pointed out Time’s Charlotte Alter, she could be considered feminist). In my experience, peers and parents have much more of an influence on how girls view their looks.
To be sure, I’ve wished that Barbie came in a variety of shapes that reflect the diversity of real bodies: Pot-bellied Barbie. Bubble-butt Barbie. Heck, cellulite Barbie. Culmone claimed that girls don’t compare themselves to Barbie (as she said, “Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff we do”), but I’ve seen just the opposite. At the age of three, Sabrina held up a Barbie and point-blank asked, “Why doesn’t my belly look like that?” Except she wasn’t upset, she was just curious. It was a good opportunity to tell her that stomachs of all shapes and sizes are beautiful.
Sabrina was upset, however, when at four years old another kid in pre-school informed her that she had a big belly. Again, we talked about how people’s bodies come in all forms. More recently, she said to me, “Skinny bodies are the best!” The source of that bit of wisdom? Once again, another kid at school. Perhaps those kids had noticed, as Sabrina did, Barbie’s admirably flat abs. One well-reported study found, as Alter points out, that Barbie can make young girls epitomize an unrealistically thin ideal. Still, it’s doubtful a doll alone propelled them to be so critical of my daughter — more likely, Mom (and even Dad) played a role.
Mothers’ eating behaviors and attitudes, along with comments on weight issues and their daughters’ bodies, have a strong impact on girls eating behavior and self-image, research has shown. I’ve seen that firsthand. I try to keep my language about food and bodies positive or neutral around Sabrina, although I slip up because I am a mother of the human variety. One morning, as Sabrina watched me get dressed for work, she noted, “Mommy, you’re making faces at yourself!” I’ve gained some weight this winter, and my wardrobe frustration had seeped through. Another time, as I downed a Diet Dr. Pepper, Sabrina commented, “Mommy! Soda’s bad for you!” She knew it. “You are totally right, it’s not healthy,” I told her. “It’s OK to have every once in a while, not a lot.”
I’ve cut back on my soda habit, but I don’t want her to grow up thinking foods are forbidden. My dad was a health food devotee, and he’d tell me and my sister stuff like “Sugar is poison!”, which only made us gorge on candy bars when we were out of his sight. While one study showed dads influence their sons’ weight concerns, not their daughters’, it makes sense that they can have an impact on their girls as well. Once, I overheard my husband tell my daughter not to have a second cupcake because it could make her fat, and I reminded him later not to use the f-word. He only meant well, but wording like that can induce eating issues.
Ultimately, I don’t think Barbie’s shaped my daughter’s body image anywhere near as much as the people in her life have. Non-plastic beings (aka humans) may be even more influential now, given how fitness-centric our society has become. My daughter’s not just seeing impossibly buff bodies on TV and the covers of magazines; she’s seeing some amazingly toned moms in our area, including ones who don’t have to work for a living and who can afford trainers. She’s just 9. She and her friends will be growing into their bodies, and discussing them a lot more, in years to come. I only hope that the positive messages I’m instilling in her now help fortify her against insecurity.
At the ice-cream store, Sabrina got her cone of cookie dough and continued to gaze at her face in the mirror.
“Honey, you’re beautiful,” I said.
“You’re just saying that because you’re my mom!” she answered.
“No, I’m saying that because it’s true,” I said. “You’re beautiful, inside and out.”
She considered that, then turned from the mirror to focus on polishing off her cone.