Weight, Height, Hair Color: What Defines Being “Girl”?

Over drinks Thursday night with Jake, a friend and old colleague, we began talking about a pet topic of mine: women, their bodies, and how they’re perceived. By elementary school, girls have a complicated relationship with their bodies that never entirely changes with age. It’s nearly impossible for anyone — male or female — to ignore the feminine body in its current waif-like form, and as girls become women they recognize the constant attention on it. As the divorced father of two young teenage girls, Jake wanted my advice. “They’re both beautiful — but one is slightly overweight, the other is skinny. And I’m just so torn about how to talk to the one who is overweight.”

Just like any young girl, the younger daughter asks if she’s pretty. And of course she’s beautiful — she’s his daughter. But he worried, he told me, that the world is mean. And that she will soon (if not already) confront the fact that life is simply harder if you’re a girl who’s overweight or “unattractive” by society’s standards. You’re less likely to be hired. Other women will be cruel. And men — who will judge you whether or not you’re overweight — are likely to give you less attention. The harsh reality is that you might not be asked out on as many dates as your more attractive peers because of something you, in large part, can’t control — how you physically appear.

British MDs have found that girls as young as FIVE worry about how they look, as many as one in three teenager girls say they’re unhappy with their bodies, and plastic surgery is up a whopping 20% since 2008. It’s a reality that men simply don’t have to deal with. Guys can be ugly but smart or funny or witty or driven, and in large part no one talks about what they look like (or if they do, it’s not something to overcome). He was a dope when he was young, Jake said, but with age he was able to overcome his faults and insecurities. He grew up and became wiser, accomplished and confident, and life got easier. But because of the high value put on women’s appearance, sometimes it can be even harder to overcome appearance with age. He asked me how he should talk to his daughter.

Were she active? Yes, she plays field hockey. Do they eat well? Yep, they eat the same. Then there’s nothing more you really can do about it, I said — and you might be better letting it go.

But I began thinking to myself: What would I do if my daughter is overweight, or has a large schnoz, or big hips (my special genetic curse)? What would I tell her?

I talked about it with Olivier later that night. Tell her the truth, he said. It’s worse to keep denying it or telling your daughter she’s physically pretty when she’s will eventually learn the lesson the harsh way that she doesn’t fit the society’s standards of “beautiful.”

OK, I said. But my first memory of realizing the size and shape of my body was when I was 15 years old. On swim team my whole life, I was used to being half-naked in front of plenty of other people and never thought twice about it. Then, in the middle of the high school swim season (where we swam 4 hours a day, 6 days a week), I was leaving a swim meet when a friend’s mother told me I looked good! I had lost weight!

I never realized I had weight to lose in the first place. And I didn’t: I was never clinically even overweight and had been active in sports my whole life. I might have had some baby fat, but my parents were so wonderful and have never said anything about my weight, so to that point I hadn’t thought twice about my muscular thighs, or the baby fat on my hips and cheeks. From that moment forward, I became hyper-aware of my weight. I noticed the girls in magazines who had the thigh gap, the girls who at 110 lbs. and 5’10” were lithe in a way that would never come naturally to me. It’s an awareness that I think many women struggle to manage in a way that’s healthy for body and mind. Hearing the “truth” did lots of good, in my experience.

So no. Being the bearer of “bad news” to my future girls is not the role I was meant to play. Or at least not the only role. Young girls are exquisitely susceptible to opinions — especially in their teens — so I can’t let them become obsessed with how they look.

In the UK, there has been a movement for classes teaching teen girls about healthy body image after a study found that girls who took just six lessons at school experienced significant positive effects on their body image and self-esteem. The courses focused on ideals of beauty, interactions with peers (especially “fat talking”), and how girls can boost mood and self-esteem. That’s good news, and I think it’s in large part the only answer to such a tough question.

I want my girls to be aware of how they look, and how others can be judgmental of their appearance, but I want to focus every day on why they are beautiful. Their mastery of multiple languages. Their innate understanding of equations and formulas. Their kindness. I want them to grow up confident in everything they have to offer, so that appearance is an afterthought. I can’t protect them from the world, but I can make it my purpose to boost their confidence in their own abilities. And I can be a good example, protect them from how hard I can be on myself, and love what I am.

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