Little Miss Sunshine, 2006

This piece by Sarah Koppelkam was originally published on hopeave.wordpress.com and then reposted in The Huffington Post in July 2013. I found it through the Feminist Bookclub (thank you ladies!). I am quoting it here in full, then offering some comments below.

How to talk to your daughter about her body

Step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.
Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.
If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:
“You look so healthy!” is a great one.
Or how about, “You’re looking so strong.”
“I can see how happy you are — you’re glowing.”
Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.

Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one.

Teach her about kindness towards others, but also kindness towards yourself.

Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say, “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.

Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or mountain bike because it scares her and that’s a good thing sometimes.

Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you’ll never stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn’t absolutely in love with.

Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture.

Teach your daughter how to cook kale.
Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter.

Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of being outside.

Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide ribcages. It’s easy to hate these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs. She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.

Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.”

Sarah Koppelkam

Koppelkam wrote the post with eating disorders in mind, based on her own and friends’ experiences. Hence, perhaps, the raw urgency of it. She told website LittleThings that the piece is “a good reminder about where I was at that point in my life. I was so exhausted by not thinking about anything else besides that.”

Koppelkam’s piece went viral, sparked a wide online conversation about body positivity and inspired several direct responses, including an interesting Christian rendition.

Some of the responses to Koppelkam’s post have considered the idea of not talking to your daughter (or son)* about their bodies as a naive way of protecting them from social expectations. According to one Facebook comment: “whether we like it or not physical appearance is a huge deal in society. Ignoring it and not preparing our daughters for the judgement that is inevitably ahead of them is blinkered and careless.” Along the same lines, a second comment adds: “Either a child feels good about themselves DESPITE the attributes that don’t measure up to contemporary society, or they don’t. Don’t tell a girl her nose isn’t big, or her butt isn’t big, or that she has lovely thighs when she doesn’t have thighs that are coveted by a runway model. If you tell her that she is wrong about how she sees herself, you are dismissing her feelings about it. Being dismissed hurts more than having a big nose… Its better to listen, to look for solutions and validate their insecurities while building on the positives.

I disagree. Of course, ignoring social expectations about body image is dangerous in the same way as it is dangerous to ignore anything potentially harmful. Learning to live with potential harm, however, is not a better solution. Validating a kid’s insecurities about their nose/bum/ears/weight and teaching them to live with them ends up validating the social constructs that created these insecurities in the first place.

Rather than feeling good about themselves “despite” their nose/bum/ears/weight, we should inspire our daughters and sons to fight the social constructs that make them insecure about their bodies. The question then is: how?

Koppelkam’s call, I believe, is not to stop talking to kids about their bodies, but to remove judgment when doing so. Talk to your kids about their bodies (and yours), she says, but without the judgment that validates social constructs on body image (and eating habits). Allow them to get to know, use and like their bodies without society imposing its labels on them.

The image of Abigail Breslin standing in front of a mirror in Little Miss Sunshine keeps popping in my mind. In case you haven’t watched the movie: Abigail Breslin’s character is a plump, spectacled girl whose dream is to win the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant. All  other girls look like a mini-Barbie, with fake eyelashes, spray tan and glitzy costumes. They conform to the image of a child beauty contestant, Abigail doesn’t. After the swimsuit contest, she looks at her round tummy in the mirror and breaths in. But. She keeps going.

There is something incredibly compelling about her “blissful ignorance” – and I believe it is the revolutionary nature of it. Her ignorance of social expectations isn’t only innocent lack of awareness. It is disregard, a reflection of joyful emotional freedom.

Can Abigail’s revolutionary freedom be taught? Probably not. Little Miss Sunshine is just a movie.

Sarah Kappelkam’s suggestions, however, can help us free our real world’s kids from unattainable body image expectations.

 

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* I made a conscious effort in this post to include boys, as well as girls, in the conversation about body image. The issue does affect both genders – as an increasing number of men and boys suffer from eating disorders.