Monday, May 23, 2011

Raising girls who value inner beauty

Prepare for a very, very long post. But it's been in the works in my mind for literally years. It's filled with stories, and much passion, and I hope with a bit of challenge to re-examine how our words and actions, even the most subtle of words and actions, can shape and mold our children forever. I hope that through it, you can gain a new or perhaps revived perspective on your own worth in Christ.

When I was a little girl, my mom (and dad for that matter) loved me for me. (Since I am a mom, I'll be telling this story from a mom's point of view, definitely not to deny the importance of fathers.)

Yes, I was raised to love myself. Never did I question my weight, or my hair, or my freckles. Well, maybe I questioned my freckles a little, as kids can be cruel. But once home from being called freckle face, I was reassured that I was beautiful, inside and out. Not once was my mom ever critical of my appearance. And equally important, not once did I ever hear my mom be critical of her own appearance. Not once.

Contrast that with one of my very best friends growing up. Let's call her Jenny. Jenny was constantly questioning her weight, her hair, her appearance in general. She was continually critical of herself. We were a mere nine years old at the time. I remember the first time I spent the night at her house. It became quickly apparent to me, even at the tender age of nine, why my friend was the way she was. Jenny's mom, in stark contrast to my own, was very critical of her appearance. I remember as we brushed our hair in front of the mirror to get ready to go to our local movie theater, Jenny's mom stared judgmentally as she stood in the bathroom doorway. She told her daughter, "It's too bad your hair isn't more like Angie's." Yes, I remember it well. And I remember my friend's face. She was crushed.

Over and over again, Jenny's mom would say subtle, and not so subtle, comments that affected my friend more than her mom would ever realize. I remember on another occasion we had just sang in a vocal concert and as my parents congratulated me on my solo, her mom told her she should have stood up straight because she looks a little chubby when she slouches. Again, my friend's spirit sunk.

And Jenny continued to be critical of her appearance...her hair, her skin, her weight. I remember her being extremely careful of what she ate, saying she couldn't have candy at the skating rink because she was needing to lose some weight. Again, we were nine.

Fast forward to middle school. I had moved to a different town by then, and had a whole new set of friends. I spent a lot of time at the house of one of my closest friends. We'll call her Emily. Emily's family seemed perfect to me. Beautiful, loving, always having fun and going on adventures together. But it didn't take long to see behind the thin veil that disguised the truth.

Emily's mom struggled with an eating disorder. She would eat very, very little and then exercise all the time. I always saw her in workout clothes. She was always talking about how many miles she ran on the treadmill, or how long she spent exercising to her workout videos that day. She was obsessed. In contrast to my nine-year-old friend's mom, Emily's mom was not critical of her own daughter. She quite obviously and openly loved Emily and treated her as any daughter would want to be treated. She told her she was beautiful. She even told her she wished she was thin like her. Thin, like a middle-school girl. And what her mom didn't see was that her words spoken to Emily meant very little in contrast to her diet and exercise-obsessed actions. That's what Emily ended up emulating. Because, after all, actions speak louder than words.

Fast forward to today. I am now 31 years old and the mother of three boys and one girl. I don't struggle with body image or self-esteem because my mom didn't struggle with body image or self-esteem. She led by words and example and it served me well. And now, the passion inside me to not only raise my own daughter up in  the same way, but also to encourage other moms to break the cycle and do the same is that much greater since I became a Christian. Because yes, it's a nice sentiment even for the worldly to spew quotes like "Don't judge a book by it's cover." But God gave it even greater meaning in 1 Samuel 16:7, which states "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

Yet, all I see even within the Christian community is women judging themselves by the world's standards and thus raising their daughters to do the same. I see moms forgetting how much our words and our actions shape and mold our children, even when we think they're not watching. I see moms constantly joking about their weight, when in reality the jokes are only masking a real feeling of inadequacy. I see moms talking about how they wish they were ten pounds lighter, and in turn, their daughters having self-esteem issues. And it breaks my heart.

The world has enough influence on our children. We don't need to be the ones to encourage an unrealistic standard of beauty our little girls already get from practically every media outlet today. And if our little girls are saying they're ugly, or they're too fat, or they're not good enough, it's easy to blame the media's distribution of photoshopped models and actresses setting an unrealistic standard that we can never achieve. But have we thought to question how we as moms may be contributing to their low self-esteem?

Let me take a minute to say that I in no way think I'm a better mom than the next person. I mess up and fall short and pray that the Lord will help heal my kids' hearts when I fail them. I have had to ask for my kids' forgiveness when I've lost my cool, or said something I shouldn't have. I am an imperfect person.

But by the grace of God, He gave me an extraordinary mother who instilled in my heart a love for myself. A love for my body, just the way I am. And since becoming a Christian, God's grown that love more and more each day which is perhaps why I think memories of my friends not having the same love for themselves is so vivid to me. Friends who tried to fulfill themselves with the things of this world, and who attempted to 'improve' their bodies with dieting and exercise. And who wallowed in failure, never able to live up to this crazy world's standards of beauty.

And to address one more possible misconception, I'm also in no way saying that it's not good to be health-minded. But there's a vast difference between being health-minded and being body-obsessed, placing our worth and happiness in what number the scale reads when we step on it in the morning.

So with those misconceptions discussed, I look around today and I see other moms who were perhaps much like my friend Jenny, whose mother was too critical of her appearance, and now she is now too critical of her own daughter's appearance. And moms who perhaps were once like my friend Emily, who watched her own mother work tirelessly trying to become perfect according to the world and grew up to now work tirelessly to be perfect according to the world while her daughter watches her. It's a cycle. We often will parent as our parents parented.

Well I say, let's break the cycle! Let's rediscover what God says about beauty.

In Proverbs 31:30, it says, "Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." 

We can spend lots of time and energy working towards a standard that we will never achieve and that will never provide us true joy and fulfillment. We can dress ourselves in skimpy clothing and seek out male attention in order to feel better about ourselves, more beautiful, more desirable, and in turn causing those males to stumble by feasting their eyes on things they shouldn't and darkening their minds with impure thoughts. And we can, by default, raise our daughters to do the same.

Or, we can surrender our insecurities to the Lord, discover in His Word where we should find our worth and value, and intentionally live our lives for Him. If not for ourselves, let's do it for our daughters. Because they are watching.

And us parents of sons aren't off the hook either. My boys have already been lectured time and time again that if they don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all. They've been told to respect women (or girls, in their case) and to look at them as God would. He looks at the heart. And thus, so should we.

Let's be intentional, moms! Let's break the chains this world's standards have placed on us, and help ourselves and our little girls be free to live out their lives with joy and happiness!

I had a conference with my daughter's preschool teacher. She's only three, so the conference is pretty low key. But in it, my daughter's teacher told my husband and I over and over again what a happy girl Chloe is and how much joy she exudes. "Her smile and laughter brighten the room," she said. And how easily can that joy and happiness be diminished over time if I as a mom didn't nurture it by teaching my daughter in the same way I was taught by my own mother . Teaching her to love herself. To disregard the world's standard of beauty and look to the One who really counts. To see How much He loves her, just the way she is.

If I can do that, by God's grace, then my daughter can someday raise a daughter of her own who can grow up with the same worth in Christ. That is truly a dream fulfilled! Won't you join me in raising my daughter to have worth in inner beauty by teaching your own sons and daughters to do the same. Together, and with God's leading, we can change a world!

And to end, a photo of my daughter, Chloe, and I. God has used Chloe, as well as my other children, to grow me in so many ways. I will never be the same, and for that, I am thankful!


Tara Anderson said...

Excellent post! Growing up, my best friend's mother was a lot like "Jenny's". While my own mother was NOT, seeing my friend's mother act the way she did and make the remarks she did to my friend etched their way into my life. I still struggle with the lies fed to me by my friend's mother...even though they weren't aimed directly at me, they made a huge impact.

Jodee said...

Well said and I couldn't agree more! Love, love, love the mommy/daughter pictures!

Ellie said...

What a wonderful mom you have!

I do appreciate this post although I will admit I struggle with my own self esteem a lot. God is bigger - right?!

Thanks for the encouragement.

xo ellie

Valerie and Jeff said...

Beautiful post Angie. You said so much truth! No wonder God has blessed you with a daughter! It makes me appreciate so much more the mom I had ... and also what an important role my dad had in imprinting these same values in me as well. Dads, as a daughter's first male role model, are critical too ... especially how he treats his wife not just physically but emotionally--those little comments in daily life that mean so much more.
Parenting has profound effects for generations. I wish more parents realized that and I hope that I remember that more often too!
And Chloe DOES radiate so much JOY! She is a blessing!