Girls, Moms and Appearance

Dear Sharon,

I am a woman who looks my age…I’m in my late 40’s. In my youth they called a woman who looked like me “matronly”. With the contemporary emphasis on youth and staying slim and plastic surgery being commonplace, I’ve found my teenage daughter putting a lot of pressure on me to become more youthful…to slim down, to dye my hair, to go to the gym and to maybe even have some surgery. I feel she’s a victim of the times…she feels obviously embarrassed about me. It’s not my concern…it’s hers. How do I handle this? It’s making me very uncomfortable…not about me, but about her.

Dear Mom, You sound like a mother who has a good sense of herself and of the societal pressures on your daughter. Although your question is not one that can be resolved quickly or easily the self confidence you seem to have will go a long way towards helping move things in a good direction.

You are certainly not the only Mom who has a teenage daughter who is periodically critical of her mother’s looks. As you state in your question teen daughters can be “victims of the times” as they are barraged by restrictive body images in the media and subsequently from peers.

Moms who are trying to help their daughters cope with this escalating pressure often have to juggle patience with understanding and a clear value system. They also often need to set aside time to deepen their mother daughter relationship and to expose their child to a variety of female role models. Here are some specific suggestions I have made to mothers to handle the difficult job they have.

1. Usually teens know a parent’s position and don’t need to be lectured many times on the same topic. Keeping this in mind I sometimes tell parents to listen more than they talk. It can be useful for a teen to speak their mind about complicated issues, even if the things they are saying don’t make sense. Getting even confusing ideas “out in the open” sometimes can help people sort them through.

2. After listening, it can be useful for a Mom or Dad to ask open-ended questions. They might ask their daughter to share what she thinks about her friends looks, about the appearance of adults she knows, or even about people from the media

3. Parents I know have also tried to get their teen talking in detail about what they think about their own appearance. It has usually been important to set aside plenty of time and “space” for such conversations as such personal sharing can be embarrassing to do.

4. If parent-teen conversations are more casual and less intense sometimes with minimal eye contact they are usually more likely to happen. Conversations can be easier to have outside of the house, while shopping, driving or in transit of some kind.

5. I often suggest that Moms spend time with their daughters doing some things that have little to do with appearance. Physical activities such as swimming, bike riding, ball playing, rock climbing, etc. can provide a break from societal messages about body image and can help Mom and daughter have some fun together.

6. I also recommend that Moms of daughters make sure that they have women in their lives that are good role models. Moms I know have invited women friends who do different kinds of work and have different personal styles over for dinner or introduced their daughters to co workers who are not stereotypical images of the pretty female It can also be useful to take girls to women’s athletic events where girls can see women trying and playing hard in different ways. Encouraging girls to participate in sports or get involved in training for non-traditional work can also help.

7. It is usually important for parents of teens to have some positive responses to their ideas. It can be helpful for a Mom to try out some of her daughter’s ideas and have some fun dressing up, getting a manicure or facial etc.

8. It is also important that parents try to be in good communication about all the aspects of their teen’s life. Concerns about appearance often are sitting on top of other kinds of stress. Learning about and being supportive of a teenage girl’s goals, worries, and close relationships can make a big difference. It can also help for a Mom to let her daughter know that she faced challenges as a teen as well, possibly sharing stories from her own adolescence.

Many teens work through complicated or confusing societal messages with their parents and other caring adults. Good luck as you help your daughter sort all of this through.