In November 2015, social media celebrity Essena O’Neill suddenly announced that she was shutting down her Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat accounts, despite having half a million followers, which together were helping her to earn a steady income from sponsors and advertisers.
“Without realising it,” the 18-year-old Australian wrote on an Instagram post dated October 27, “I’ve spent the majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance. Social media, especially the way I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation, in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgement. I was consumed by it.”
Unfortunately, while O’Neill may have come to the realisation of just how artificial and constructed society may be, many young girls, constantly surrounded by media images of what supposedly constitutes beauty, continue to believe the lie that “we are what we appear to be.” Qualities like being blonde, thin, tall and fashionably dressed are all celebrated, but the high cost of the mental and emotional stress on girls who don’t conform to society’s standards is often ignored.
Girls who have a positive self-image are less likely to be promiscuous, to be pressured into alcohol consumption and to accept the media’s views on beauty. But how do we develop a healthy self-concept in our girls?
In her book Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring Our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect, Molly Barker discusses four elements that are essential to helping girls maintain a healthy self-image through the turbulent years of adolescence.
1. Connecting to a group
As a young woman in my 20s, I found that becoming involved in my church and taking on leadership roles built in me a real sense of self-esteem and belonging to a community.
At around eight years of age, a girl is able to grasp more abstract concepts yet is still willing to listen to her parents. This is a great time to get her involved in an extracurricular activity that instils positive values. It might be something like taking your daughter to church, where you know that similar values to your own will be encouraged, or to a public speaking club. Perhaps a youth project, sports club or a children’s choir or orchestra would cater to your child’s interests and promote positive values where she can gain a sense of accomplishment and feel good about herself without undue pressure to achieve.
2. Be sure of your own values and have a secure sense of identity
Too often, as women, we’ve believed the lie that if we can somehow change our bodies—become thinner, change our hair or skin colour—others will love us. But we want our daughters to feel free to be themselves and to feel and experience love rather than waiting for someone to love them. The best way to teach these concepts is by modelling them.
I remember that when I was a child my mother actively encouraged me to befriend newcomers to the neighbourhood. She used to talk to me about how I’d felt when we moved to a new town (which we did several times due to my father’s work). As a result, I learned to value being inclusive, just as my parents did. And through befriending newcomers, I’ve made some great friendships.
As parents, we need to explain to our children why we do things in a certain way from an early age. Explain what values underpin why we are kind to others or why we find it important to be honest, even if it means getting into trouble for it.
By spending time with and talking to our daughters, we can learn what’s important to them and as parents, we can find ways to reinforce those values that are positive.
3. Active listening
Listening means not offering advice or judgements but simply trying to understand the message our daughter is conveying. There’ll be times to offer advice and times when advice is sought, but it’s also important to take the time to just listen.
Make your house a place where your daughter’s friends are welcome. That way you can get to know them and you’ll be able to give advice about her friendships should she ask for it.
Also, develop friendships with the parents of your daughter’s friends. This will help where there may be differences in values or expectations. Talk about the value of healthy friendships.
Ironically, feeling love for others begins with self-love. Jesus instructed us to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, italics added). This means that, because we are God’s creation, we need to have a great respect and appreciation for our bodies. God made us and He loves us just as we are. He made each of us unique and we need to value that uniqueness.
Women sometimes find it hard to love and accept their bodies just the way they are because they’re all too aware of their imperfections. However, as parents, we need to model our own self-acceptance to our daughters.
When we love ourselves, we’ll also want to do what’s best for our bodies. This means exercising, eating well, spending time with God, looking after our emotional health, and getting plenty of rest, water, fresh air and sunshine.
If we model these attitudes in our own lives, our daughters will begin to value them too. They’ll be able to celebrate who they are as people instead of wanting to engage in activities that will harm their bodies. As creations of God, we also need to accept that we are worthwhile.
If we can help our daughters understand that they don’t have to do anything to be worthwhile, that they’re worthwhile simply as daughters of God, they’ll relate in respectful ways to others and will respect themselves.
It’s also important to set appropriate boundaries with our children rather than being “kid-pleasers.” This, in combination with teaching them self-love, will help them learn to set appropriate boundaries in their own lives rather than doing something just to please and be loved by others. We need to be able to say No to their requests for more and more rather than encouraging them to buy into this consumer-based culture we live in.
4. Feeling empowered
It can be scary to think of the choices our daughters could make, but it’s important that we allow them to make choices that are appropriate for their age level. These choices are wonderful learning opportunities and promote personal growth.
Help your daughter to realise the great power she has with the many decisions she makes from day to day—decisions like who to play with and when to do homework.
Sally’s mum found that most mornings she was getting into arguments about what Sally would wear to preschool. So she put in one drawer all the clothes she was happy for Sally to wear to preschool and then she told her that when she got up in the morning she could go to that drawer and choose her clothes for the day. This is a good example of setting boundaries while also allowing your child the freedom to make choices.
Encourage a positive attitude by praising your child when you see her being positive and asking her to change her attitude when it becomes negative.
When she makes a decision, help her to consider whether this supports her core values or whether it chips away at her self-worth and starts to destroy a core value. Encourage her to listen to her conscience.
When she’s trying to make up her mind, rather than telling her what to do, ask questions like, “How do you feel about that choice?” Encourage her to talk about why she may be feeling that way.
God sometimes speaks to us at an intuitive level. We need to ask Him to speak to us and then listen for His voice. It’s important that when we feel something intuitively we discuss it with Christian friends and test it against what the Bible says.
We can teach our daughters this process by explaining our decision-making and valuing their feelings about a situation. However, we need to teach them that the process must be accompanied by a relationship with God, prayer and good Christian friends with whom to discuss their intuitive feelings.
Consider ways that you and your daughter can give back to the community. It could be as simple as collecting your neighbours’ mail while they are away or it may be something more significant, such as getting involved in volunteering at a local nursing home on a regular basis.
By involving your daughter in practical Christianity and doing things with her, as time goes by she’ll understand what Christianity is all about and want to remain part of a church community that has meaning for her. We start to build self-worth and a sense of satisfaction by giving back to others. This is a practical way you can show your daughter the power of her decisions.
Encouraging your daughter to rise above what society believes is acceptable and beautiful can be challenging, but the values that we instil into them will help them mature and blossom into well-adjusted women with more to contribute to the world than simply looking like Hollywood’s latest movie star.