How To Talk With Your Nieces About Body Image
Alexis Wolfer is a well-known beauty and lifestyle expert and the founder of The Beauty Bean, an online magazine that promotes Real Beauty. She is also the creator of the international and viral Makeup Free Mondays movement and can be found tweeting about all things real and realistic beauty at @AlexisWolfer.
A few weeks ago, I had two of my nieces over for a sleepover. After a day filled with sugary snacks (balanced by LOADS of walking and activities – and a couple forced bites of something green, ANYTHING green), I noticed one of my nieces checking herself out in the mirror.
My guess is she’s seen countless women do this on a regular basis – in bathrooms, with compact mirrors, and more. She’s probably seen me do this. My inner voice wanted to have a bit of a powwow right then and there about beauty ideals, body image, and more. (What can I say? I’m nothing if not passionate about empowering women and girls to love their bodies.) It seemed innocent enough – for a short period of time anyway. That is, until she pulled up her shirt, stared at her stomach and said, “I have a big belly.”
Not only is she so young, but she also has a beautifully perfect 7-year-old body.
My heart sunk.
My earliest memory of having body image issues (those that led to subsequent eating disorders) was when I was just a year older than she is now. I vividly remember being poignantly aware of the shape of my body – and more profoundly, how it did (or didn’t) compare to what I thought was “beautiful.”
As sad as I was to see this happening, I was really glad I was there to bear witness and more importantly intervene.
So, how do you talk with your nieces about body image and beauty? Here are some tips:
1. Speak on her level, literally.
It’s really easy for conversations like this to come off as condescending (and while your niece may not be old enough to know what the word means, she more certainly knows how it feels). Get yourself to eye level, and speak with confidence and love.
While I immediately wanted to go into full on rant mode and talk about how gorgeous she is just the way she is, the most important thing you can do is listen. There is a chance you’re either completely misreading the situation or that the information she’s coming to the conversation with is very different than what you expect. So before you even begin, remove any preconceived notions; and ask in a non-leading way what she’s thinking about.
Telling her how beautiful you think she is may make her feel better in the moment, but the goal is to really figure out the trigger and how to stop it. If she talks about something girls in school say or something she’s seen on TV, start there; and be sure to keep it age-appropriate.
4. Be real.
While we all want our nieces to feel beautiful inside and out, a quick “don’t be silly, you are beautiful” won’t, unfortunately, help do anything other than show you love her.
When I asked my niece what she was thinking about and she said, “I have a big belly,” I asked why she thought that. She then told me to look at it. I did, before telling her that her body was perfect just the way it was and that we all have bellies. I then proceeded to pull up my shirt, stick my belly out, and show her. She laughed. But more than that she saw a few things: a) that I love her and that I was willing to show it, not just say it; b) that we all have bellies; and c) that I was open to our having this conversation.
4. Be open to the conversation.
You are likely only seeing a small glimpse of what’s going on inside her head with regard to her body, so make sure she sees you as a trusted, fair source who’s always there for her. Tell her that she can talk with you about how she’s feeling anytime – and mean it.
5. Steer clear of body image chat while eating.
One of the cardinal rules of any eating disorder program is that you never talk about food while eating. You don’t want her to think of food as the enemy. If the conversation comes up over a meal, go with it; but if you have the choice, conversations around body image should always take place away from any triggers like food or exercise.
She’s lucky to have you as an Aunt.
Photo: Worakit Sirijinda
Published: June 26, 2012