Monday, October 15, 2012

Halloween Costume Challenge

Halloween is a holiday that has evolved from ancient times but originally was celebrated as pagan harvest festivals; it also coincided with events honouring the dead celebrated by many different cultures including Hindus, Japanese Buddhists  and ancient Egyptians.   Catholicism has also influenced this holiday with it's annual observance of All Saints' & All Souls' Day.  Over time October 31 became a celebration of dress up and fantasy:  scary and beautiful, something for children and imagination.  A family event.  Remember when it wasn't even cool to dress up after age 12 and you stayed home to hand out the candy and see the younger kids in their costumes?  Just once as an adult (a very young adult),  I went to a night club with friends on Halloween and we all dressed up.   I spent a lot of money renting my costume.  I was a clown,  fully outfitted in striped cotton,  complete with floppy shoes and a rainbow wig.  In retrospect, I think maybe my then-boyfriend had something else in mind. 

I knew there had been a huge cultural shift when Lindsey Lohan’s character in the popular teen film Mean Girls astutely stated  "Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it."  That was in 2004.  Those words (penned by comedienne and screenwriter, Tina Fey) were a wry observation of what was happening in the world of teen girl Halloween costumes.  In retrospect, I wonder if they were prescriptive as well.

Halloween seems to have become the most sexualized (and drunken) night of the year for teens and adults alike.  While this makes me sad, it is so much more disturbing to see that the training begins so early.  The trend is for little girl's costumes to be skin-tight and include high heels,  fishnet stockings and imply full breasts where they don't yet exist.  Flyers and catalogues feature children's French Maid and Geisha Girl costumes along with sexualized version of all the classics: mini-skirted and crop-topped pirates, princesses and Little Red Riding Hood.

I am not surprised by any of this and wrote my first article commenting on this trend more than four years ago.  However, even though few things shock me, I actually cried when I saw a half-dressed Hermione Granger costume posted on line last week.  A facebook friend wrote this about the image: “Every time I see that "sexy Hogwarts" costume, or any other one that reduces a heroine (or a legit occupation) to a cheap sexual fantasy I want to scream. Hermione Granger is a war hero, a bad ass activist, a genius and is not amused. Why does this exist and not a Sexy Harry or Sexy Ron costume? Why are 95% of costumes for adult women outfits that should rightfully come with a pole as an accessory? And why aren't more people pissed about it???”

It was devastating to see Hermione, a fictional character, reduced to this image.  Partly because behind that fictional character is an amazing young actress, Emma Watson, who has maintained the ability to be a healthy role model for young girls despite her commercial success.  And partly, because this is one of my daughter’s heroines.  She has had more fun dressing as the evil Draco Malfoy and the ethereal Luna Lovegood but Hermione pictures decorate her wall and we have had many conversations about the values that she can learn from Hermione: hardworking, not afraid to be smart, loyal and brave.  There is NO place for a hyper sexualized, semi-bare breasted Hermione in our vision of strong, brave girls who are passionate about social justice and healthy, caring relationships.

Most thoughtful parents are not going to intentionally let their pre-teen child leave the house in a costume that is designed to present them in a sexual and objectified way.   However, I think the problem starts in the aisles of the costume stores. It is almost impossible to go out and purchase costumes without being exposed to inappropriate versions of well known children’s characters. So I have been giving some thought on how to opt out of this sexualized, often racist and commercialized experience. 

Here are a few ideas:
my little Luna Lovegood, Halloween 2011
  • For pre-teens and young children, you can easily reclaim the innocent fun, outrageous and creative aspects of Halloween.  Work together to make costumes instead of immersing your daughter in the commercialized version of Halloween at the mall.  Encourage her to use her imagination and see herself as powerful or adventurous.  If she could be anyone who would she be?  Remind her of characters in books that she admires but does not have a visual image for.  Help her imagine how that character would dress and act if she or he came to life.
  • Consider throwing a party instead of or prior to trick-or-treating.  Raid your own closet and pick up crazy pieces at discount and dollar stores.  Provide face paints and silly hats.  Invite kids to attend and make their own costumes as the main activity.  Give awards for the funniest, scariest or most imaginative costume.  Genuine creativity will boost self-esteem while reducing the pressure to look sexy or pretty.
  • This issue is more difficult to address with teens.  Revealing clothing and appropriate limits are an ongoing conversation at this stage.  Be prepared to talk about the difference between her own healthy, developing sexual desire versus being a sex object and the risks involved with playing that role.  Help her explore her own feelings and develop critical thinking about sexualized images of women,  feminine "ideals" and marketing.  Even if she agrees that Halloween is the one night a year that she can “dress like a slut and no one will say anything about it”,  remind her that the photos live on forever and can be shared anywhere on any day of the year. 
  • Check out this blog post called Take Back Halloween that I came across last year  for some fun and intelligent suggestions.  I'm considering being Emma Goldman this year, thanks to that idea posted in the "Notable Women" section of the article!
  • For a completely different approach - consider joining in a local harvest festival or having your own Day of the Dead celebration complete with a small altar in your home to honour your ancestors or more recently deceased love ones.  Do some research together and join in the dancing in colourful costumes, making your own prayer flags and decorating and gifting skulls shaped from sugar and candy. 
Photo Credit:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is your perfectionism harming your child's self-esteem?

I’ve been preparing a new workshop for the Manitoba Eating Disorder Prevention & Recovery Program on the topic of perfectionism.  The need to be seen as ‘perfect’ is linked to anxiety, poor body image, anger and shame in adults.  My workshop goal is to encourage our clients to overcome perfectionism in order to experience more joy and satisfaction from their achievements and relationships.

While reading and reflecting on perfectionism I was reminded of a mom I met a few years ago in another workshop.  I remember she was worried that she had put too much pressure on her daughter to do well at school, due to her own tendency to strive for perfection.  She noted that her daughter’s self-esteem seemed to suffer as a result and her interest in academics was slipping.

If you are a parent who also struggles with perfectionism - here are my thoughts on starting fresh with your kids for the school year ahead. 

Photo by Flickr Photographer: N.D. Strupler
Children's academic success is partially determined by the kind of expectations their parents set. Realistic expectations encourage kids to aim higher, without pushing them beyond their capabilities. Standards that are too high or seem unreachable can reduce their sense of competence.

When a child brings home a test with an A and is questioned on why it wasn't an A+, the message is that she is not good enough unless she never makes a mistake.  Part of learning and growth is making mistakes.  One problem with expecting perfection is that perfection is almost impossible to achieve.  Kids who strive for perfection may resist trying new things because they won't risk making mistakes.  Sometimes perfectionism actually causes homework or projects to pile up because of the feeling that it is never quite done, or will never be judged good enough.  Adult perfectionists often struggle with a significant amount of procrastination that hampers their achievements later in life.

It is important to consider what is developmentally appropriate for your child’s age but only as a guideline.  There may be areas where your son is advanced or behind what those guidelines would have you expect.  Start with where he is at and set goals together that reflect his desires and interests as well as your parental expectations.  If your daughter is already an excellent student, instead of pushing for even higher achievement, maybe it is time to help her grow in other ways such as new responsibilities at home or trying out for a team sport.

Striving for excellence instead of perfection has better results and makes room for growth. Start fresh this year with a heart to heart talk about how your child felt last school year and what each of you would like to be different this year. Encourage your kids to do their best and let them know you trust them to live up to that expectation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Female Athletes and the Risk of Disordered Eating

Can your daughter maintain a healthy body image when she is passionate about her sport?

I have been on a bit of a summer hiatus.. but vacation is over and I am back to my real life which includes full time counselling & group facilitation with clients who experience eating disorders, private consulting work in the area of girls and self-esteem, catching up with everything going on in the world and blogging about all of the above.

During my vacation, I did watch a lot of Olympic coverage.  I was inspired by so many athletes.  Like many of you, I will forever be moved by the incredible beauty,  grace and power of gymnast Gabby Douglas.  However, I always feel somewhat conflicted watching elite level sports because I am reminded of the more sinister side to this level of athleticism. I have written about the positive benefits of sports on girls and self-esteem here and here, but that is only one part of the story.

By the time they are competing for medals on the world stage, these young girls have been doing almost nothing but gymnastics for most of their life. There is no question they are strong, talented and incredibly fit. They are driven and perhaps single-minded in their pursuit of excellence and achievement. They have much to be proud of and much that I admire, yet I feel relief that my own daughter has not followed a similar path.

Gymnastics is a sport where a very thin body, low body weight and a shorter stature are seen as an aesthetic ideal and is considered significant in terms of presentation and performance. One way this is achieved is by delaying puberty through controlling nutritional intake and not allowing the body to acquire a normal amount of body fat or achieve appropriate bone growth. Girl's whose natural bodies most closely represent the aesthetic ideal are more likely to be able to remain in the sport throughout adolescence; yet many girls develop eating disorders as a logical outcome to the pressures they experience to succeed in their sport. Nadia Com─âneci and Cathy Rigby, both famous gymnasts during my childhood, have spoken openly about the eating disorders they suffered during and after their time as Olympic athletes.

Gymnastics certainly aren't the only risky sport. Figure skating and long distance runners also experience higher incidence of eating disorders than in the general population. Girls who play sports that have revealing uniforms or must meet criteria for weight classes also experience undue pressure about their body shape and size.

Female Athlete Triad

Female athletes are at high risk for what is known as the Female Athlete Triad. The Triad refers to disordered eating, missed periods and osteoporosis. The International Olympic Commission reports in their 2009 Position Paper  that over 7% of collegiate athletes in 15 different sports and, shockingly, over 22% of athletes in the aesthetic sports of gymnastics, cheer leading and diving had not menstruated by age 16.   By contrast, the percentage of girls in the general population of the United States who have not menstruated by age 15 is less than 1%. The resulting medical complications are often permanent and irreversible. Bone loss starts as soon as six months from loss of menstruation. This can have immediate consequences on performance and health but also has long term consequences such as chronic joint problems and increased risk of fractures for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the resulting infertility is irreversible as well.

I am impressed that the IOC has begun to take these risks seriously and have invested in research, position papers, information brochures for athletes and even some moving videos to education athletes and their families. (See the link at the end of this post).But long before Olympic dreams are within reach, female athletes may be at risk. In fact many young girls who are extraordinarily passionate about the sport find that they are unable to continue to compete at higher levels as their bodies begin to change during adolescence. 

One woman I know was able to continue to compete nationally by switching to rhythmic gymnastics but it was made clear to her at the age of twelve that her growing breasts were a barrier to continuing in artistic gymnastics. By the age of fourteen she was skilled enough to coach others to athletic greatness but her own healthy, uninhibited puberty had eliminated her from competition. She told me that her parents wouldn’t let her sacrifice her health or her healthy body image in order to continue to compete. Today that young woman has achieved so many amazing things and has traveled the world in support of social justice issues. She also participates in sport for pleasure and fitness. I don’t know what she thinks now about that decision but I do know that she is someone I admire greatly and she doesn’t need a national medal to prove her achievements. 

Tips for supporting your daughter in her health and athletic pursuits:

  • Help her have balance in her life. It is wonderful that she has a passion but also encourage her to develop interests and friendship groups outside of her sport.
  • Teach your daughter to eat for energy and pleasure, not to restrict food in order to change her body shape.
  • Know the warning signs and risk factors for disordered eating – and seek out professional help if you suspect your daughter is at risk.
  • Speak up – if you hear a coach or sport club leader criticizing weight or encouraging dieting or use of diet pills, laxatives or steroids.
  • Challenge the practice of public weigh ins or body fat analyses.
  • Focus your own positive comments on her skills, attitude, and perseverance rather than her appearance or comparing her body to that of other girls in her sport.
  • Support your daughter to set realistic goals that take in to account her natural body type and shape as well as her strengths and level of commitment to the sport.
  • Encourage her club to host self-esteem workshops for girls, eating disorder prevention workshops for coaches and to promote a welcoming environment for girls of every shape and size.

For further information:

I recommend watching these four short videos provided on the Olympic website about promoting healthy body image in athletes and you can download a this brochure for athletes that further explains the risks, prevention and treatment for the Female Athlete Triad.

You may wish to share this information with your daughter's coach:  Tips for Coaches: Preventing Eating Disorders in Athletes.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Who Are Her Role Models?

Contemporary pop culture is enthralled with generic celebrity. While there are many people who achieve commercial success through talent, hard work and investing their time and energy, there also seems to be an entire generation of young women who are famous because of who she is related to or because her face or name was branded at a very young age and she is now a product to be sold for as long as her handlers can do so.

Little girls are emulating these interchangeable celebrities at younger ages and assuming their own adult lives will be filled with designer handbags and a welcome entourage of paparazzi. Girls tend to look up to other young (celebrity) girls as a way of figuring out who they will be and what they want to emulate as they grow. 

I don’t think that all of these role model choices are bad ones.  When my guitar playing daughter looks to musicians for inspiration – I like to point out the women that write their own music and are famous for their skill and dedication to their craft rather than because of their notoriety in the press.

However, this is not just about admiring someone from afar, it has become so common today to hear that a girl’s goal for her life focus on fame, celebrity and the hopes of a performing or modeling career.   I think that many of us want to encourage more practical pursuits without crushing our children’s dreams.  

Here are some tips on how to do that:

  • Discuss what it might cost some young celebrities to grow up in the public eye. Point out your daughters cherished private moments: a restaurant lunch with a parent, a swim in a public lake, or reading her book in a backyard hammock. Help her to imagine how few private moments a young celebrity has and how she might struggle with the lies and sensationalized stories that are created to sell magazines, movies and products.
  • Celebrity careers are so visible and appear fabulously exciting. According to the  Geena Davis Institute on Media and Gender,  in research looking at all G-rated family films between 2006-2009,  NOT ONE female character was working in the field of medical science, in law, politics or as a business leader.  In fact, of all characters shown to be working or in careers at all, over 80% of them were male.  So clearly, film is not where girls will find ideas for their own careers. Parents can attempt to balance that by making other career options viable and exciting as well. Spend time talking about who you consider to be real heroes. This might be someone who builds schools for girls in developing countries or someone who started an animal rescue organization. Talk about the work that your female friends do and highlight their successes. Be sure to talk proudly of your own work or education, because you are still her most relevant role model.
  • If your daughter wants to pursue acting, dancing or other ways of performing - encourage her participation because these talents and varied experiences will help her build confidence and skills that will be useful in many areas.  If her talent is truly promising, remind her that local productions or teaching in these areas are also worthwhile pursuits. Over time, if she truly loves her craft, she will be motivated by her passion more than her quest for fame and wealth.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of role models for a while – thinking how lucky my daughter is to have many strong women around her but how we still have to make a point of showing that our work, passions and choices about family and lifestyle are interesting and ultimately satisfying – at least as much as the celebrities she has her eye on. 

Because my daughter is interested in science, math and leadership I am especially excited by Dove’s® most recent initiative and have signed up to participate. The event is called Women Who Should be Famous, and it takes place on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 at 7pm EST at  It is a free live-streamed event. Any Canadian with a Facebook account and access to a computer can register on Dove’s® page and is encouraged to participate along with a girl in her life. During the hour-long event the stories of four inspirational women in the fields of science, leadership, environmentalism and the arts will be highlighted. The goal is to “shine the spotlight on the stories of strong role models for the next generation of women.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tween Girl Style

So far I've been more of a gentle blogger than an angry blogger... but tonight I am feeling the rage.  While on facebook, I noticed a new ad to the side of the page. It was for Tween Girl Style Magazine. A little curious and a little apprehensive... I clicked. After all, I am the mother of a so-called "tween". Although, this is a term I have always refused to use because it was created by marketing companies in order to identify a new and lucrative market for advertising. A "tween" is generally used to refer to a girl who marketers are no longer trying to sell childhood toys to and who they don't yet consider to be part of the teen market. 

I don't mind referring to my daughter as a "pre-teen" sometimes, now that she is eleven years old and four inches taller than I am. But until recently I held firmly on to "child" as a perfectly appropriate and reasonable descriptor for this developing person who had only been on the planet a decade and still had a whole lot of emotional, physical and psychological growing to do. Incidentally "tween" is neither a psychological or physical developmental term. Marketers may use it to describe a 6 year old or a 12 year old depending on what they are out to sell. 

In this case, they are selling fashion, celebrity and "cool". From the looks of it they are also selling the modelling industry and promoting specific agents. The target market of the Tween Girl Style Magazine is ages 7-13. The tag line is "they are too old for Dora but too young for 'Days of Our Lives'." These are the choices? So this magazine has seen fit to fill the years between learning to read and getting her first period - with modelling contests, celebrity news and fashion advice. They refer to this span of six critical years in girls' development as a time that they are "left in limbo... searching for a style of their own". 

I think many girls in this age bracket are very much left in limbo and searching... but what they are searching for is not "style" but rather identity and a sense of safety in their own skin as they attempt to negotiate an increasingly sexualized world that depletes their self-esteem and confidence while distorting their body image long before they reach their teen years. As psychologists Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown discuss in their 2006 book, Packaging Girlhoodthat "girls are being sold a version of girlhood that will feel satisfying to them when they conform to it but will limit their possibilities in the future."  The script for North American girlhood is reinforced through TV shows, books, movies and clothing lines and now a special tween girl fashion magazine. The message to girls is that they must love to shop - especially for jewelry and accessories; they must yearn to be models, brides, princesses and fashionistas and they must work hard to be hot, sexy and cool. This cultural script for girlhood literally shapes the development of our daughters. 

healthy "tweens" having a real childhood

What are we doing about that? I think it is increasingly challenging for parents to navigate the culture as well. When we go to the mall and see thongs and padded bras for 10 year olds, when the most frequently available choice for a little girl's swim suit is a string bikini and when we turn on the news and learn that the "latest trend" is for pre teen girls to get their brand new leg, underarm and pubic hair waxed off before summer camp... how are we as parents to know where to draw the line? It can be overwhelming and often it is parents who take the blame for poor choices. 

 I'd like to have a dialogue here -- please tell me how YOU navigate the cultural pitfalls while trying to raise healthy daughters. 

 And while we are talking - I'd like to know - how did you spend those important years? You know, that apparently empty wasteland that we used to call childhood?  I remember that I wrote plays and stories.  My best friend and I made up an endless game called "Bank" in which we took turns (for years, I might add) of creating new and diverse and sometimes completely crazy characters who came in to do their banking. I swam and played tag and played with my dog. I sunk a bazillion baskets with my brother behind the garage. I chatted with my grandma in the garden. I watched my grandpa fix stuff. My mom taught me to cook and my sister took me to a few protest marches while teaching me some critical thinking. I took skating lessons and went to camp and once I took square dancing lessons with my step dad after my mom broke her ankle. Sometimes I was coerced into practising the piano. I went to school and I tried to imagine who I would be when I grew up. And for sure there were times I did wish that I was prettier and wonder what it was like to be the girl in the magazine that Shaun Cassidy had his arm around... but mostly I just got to grow up and find my way without string bikinis and padded bras and body waxings... without the pressure to look cool and be hot.  Wow. Does it get more complicated than THAT for an 9 year old?!

Life got hard for me too... adolescence was painfully complicated for a while but I made it to high school before I was faced with the onslaught of pressure that our girls are facing today, sometimes before they make it out of first grade. What are you doing with your girls to help mitigate the mental and emotional land mines that are around every corner and to help her enjoy a healthy childhood? Let's generate some positive ideas here so that we, as parents, can help each other to resist and create safer spaces in which our girls can grow. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Celebrating Body Diversity with Children

Illustration by Silvana Moran; copyright information here

Yesterday, a friend sent me this beautiful illustration by Winnipeg artist Silvana Moran.  I encourage you to use it when talking to young children about diversity.  Children vary in height, weight, skin color, skin tone, hair color, eye color, and feet size from their peers.  Yet each is beautiful and unique in his or her own ways. Talking about fruit is a fun way to illustrate how important it is that no two people (and no two fruits) are exactly the same.
If you want to move from the metaphor of fruit to something a little closer to human -  try using dogs.  They are mammals just like us!  Yet dogs have many different breeds.  Dogs have different weights, heights, fur type and color, as well as particular talents and instincts that are normal for that breed.  Even among breeds there are variations and it is very rare for two dogs to be exactly the same.

Chlidren will have fun describing different breeds of dogs that they recognize. Do they know the difference between a St. Bernard and a chihuahua?  Do they recognize that a dalmatian looks nothing like a miniature schnauzer? 

Ask them to imagine a St. Bernard dog who spends much of her time  in front of the mirror wishing she could look like someone else.  What might she be thinking?    "I'm too big... I'm too heavy... I knock things over with my tail.  I'm so clumsy and kids are sometimes afraid of me.   I wish I could be like the cute little toy poodle next door.. he is so delicate and sweet with that soft curly hair... no one would ever be afraid of him.  Maybe I should go on a diet or dye my fur a different color so people would like me more."

Now imagine what is going on  next door. The poodle  is looking in his mirror too.  Staring wistfully,  maybe he is thinking "I hope I don't get taken out for a walk today.  I'd be so embarrassed.  My hair hasn't been coiffed lately and I am just not pretty enough.  I'm also really jealous of that big black and brown dog next door. She is so strong and she never seems afraid of the neighborhood kids. She doesn't seem to care what she looks like either."

This exercise is guaranteed to get kids giggling and their imaginations running wild as they think of all the dogs that they know and what their inner thoughts might be.  This is a great way to kick off a thoughtful conversation about the normal and diverse range of human appearance.   It isn't just teens and adults who spend too much time comparing themselves to other people and worrying about how their appearance measures up.  Children are not immune.  We all need to learn that  skin color, hair color or body shape and size do not determine our worth. 

Help your kids imagine a happier, more confident St. Bernard.  How would she be the best St. Bernard she can be?  How can the poodle learn to relax and know that he is loved no matter how recently his last grooming appointment was?  Why do their people love them?  Are big dogs loved just as much as small ones? What are the qualities that make different dogs special? 

Children then can be encouraged to notice and and talk about their own best qualities. Here are some of my favourite story books on the subject. Click on the title to read a description.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Real or Retouched? Distorted Perceptions of Beauty

I’ve written before about the impact of digital retouching on our perceptions of what is real and what is beautiful.  Fortunately, youth are becoming savvier about how fake some of the images are in the media they consume. Yet I think we all underestimate the degree of re-touching and how much of it actually goes unnoticed. 

When I talk to teen girls about this,  they are aware that Photoshop can be used to change eye colour, darken or lighten skin tones, and hide blemishes.  However, this doesn’t stop them from comparing themselves to models in magazines, feeling inferior, and saving up for their own hair extensions, spray tans and make up that holds the promise of a flawless complexion.  Girls don't always see that in addition to the faux tan there is an altered bone structure, impossible thinness or a compilation of features from more than one model. 

When the illusion is not recognized, these images simply seem aspirational … they prompt girls and women to work a little harder to achieve a new standard of beauty. A standard where the bar rises more and more out of reach each year. 

When the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty first launched the Evolution video that I wrote about here,  it sparked a global conversation (and several million youtube hits) that still continues today.  Six years later, I am using this resource with a new generation of young girls to help them understand the resources and artifice that go into creating this illusion of beauty.  

But, despite increased attention being paid to the use of retouching in marketing photos, the effects are still being felt. The Real Truth About Beauty Research conducted by Dove found that only 9% of Canadian girls and 3% of women are comfortable calling themselves beautiful.

According to Sharon MacLeod, V.P. of Marketing, Dove has made a commitment not to distort any of their images to create an unrealistic or unattainable view of beauty.  They make a genuine attempt to demonstrate that beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colours and ages.

I don’t expect companies to stop wanting to sell their products so I have always appreciated Dove’s approach.  They don’t seek to convince women or girls to feel badly about themselves in order to be motivated to buy their products. I've been sent examples of other companies that have taken the lead from Dove and have made similar marketing changes – I think this is fabulous and shows the power of consumer advocacy. 

Today Dove launched a new creative campaign that demonstrates how extreme retouching can go virtually unnoticed… even by those of us who are shrewdly aware of it’s widespread use.

The photo at the top of this page shows an upside-down image of a normal looking woman. It is accompanied by upside down text to entice readers to turn the photo around. This works better in print, so I will save you the trouble of tilting your laptop or standing on your heard... you can see the flipped picture to the right.  When the photo is flipped, we can see that the woman's appearance is actually extremely distorted, with both her lips and eyes upside down. The accompanying text reads "Does retouching distort your perception of reality?"

When I first looked at the original photo, I really did not know that it was retouched; but after viewing it upside down… I wonder how I could not have seen that.  This makes it very apparent how impressionable girls and young women may not be aware of the majority of photo retouching that they view.

The new ad campaign launched in this morning’s edition of Toronto’s Metro and is available through an interactive and shareable application at  Visit to see more examples of extreme photo re-touching and tell Dove what you think and then continue the conversation at home.

Talk to your children about how photo re-touching distorts their perception of reality and how comparing themselves to something that isn’t real will always leave them feeling they are not good enough. Here are some tips to keep the conversation going:
  • Get outside to a local music festival or sports event and do some people watching together.  Take in the very real and very diverse beauty that surrounds us every day and notice how different this is to what girls are being told is beautiful. Challenge these notions.
  • During your daily life, make a point of admiring people of a wide range of physical appearances – admire them for their natural beauty and admire them for their efforts, talents and personality traits. 
  • Look at old family photo albums together and appreciate the beauty of past generations. Talk about how ideas of attractiveness change over time. Notice how inherited genetic traits get passed down from our ancestors and express gratitude that we can't Photoshop away this special gift of memory and history.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Parents Have Poor Body Image*

Over the years, concerned moms have asked me what they should do when a child has adopted body image issues from someone at home.  One mom, after a workshop, asked   “I think I have spent too much time worrying about my own weight in front of my ten year old daughter. I have heard her telling her friends she thinks she’s fat. Is it too late to fix this?” Another mom, a television host, told me on air that she had seen her five year old looking at her body in the mirror and asking “is my bum too big?” This mom astutely told me after the interview “when I saw her do that … I recognised that voice and that look on her face… that was me.”

Children get negative body messages in all kinds of places and some are more vulnerable to these messages than others.  The children who also get exposed to negative body talk in their families, have fewer safe places to grow naturally and be at home in their bodies.
Every day in every interaction, we are teaching our children something about how to think about themselves and how to appreciate and value their own features.   My own daughter has been told hundreds of times over the years: “you look just like your mom”.  For this reason,  more than any other, she has never heard me make a negative comment about my own appearance, my body shape or size. No matter how bad a day I may be having, I don't verbally degrade my worth in any way.  That doesn’t mean I’ve never had a self-critical thought… I just don’t express those things in front of a vulnerable child who is still shaping her own sense of identity and self-worth. 
If you believe you have modelled a poor attitude about weight or body shape, deal with it head on!  You might try telling your daughter:
You have heard me put myself down and worry a lot about my weight and I regret that. I have struggled with liking all of my body parts and accepting the body I have.  I don’t want you to have the same worries. Your body is just right for you!  I am going to commit to accepting that my body is also just right for me.
Begin to talk openly about your accomplishments, the things that give you pleasure and the parts of your body you appreciate. Openly admire other women of a variety of sizes: point out their skills and distinctive qualities as well as their beauty and confidence. When you exercise or make healthy food choices, you can talk about heart health, energy level and the pleasure you get in engaging in these things.  There is no need to talk about how wrong your body shape or size is and how much you desire to change it; if you need help healing your own body image issues – talk to your best friend or a counsellor. Modelling body comfort is just as important as talking about it. Put on your bathing suit and a pretty cover-up if it makes you feel better and take your daughter to the beach!

As Maya Angelou has said "when we know better; we do better."  Your daughter may not forget the early negative messages about weight but she will also remember that the parent who stopped worrying about weight all the time was more fun, had more energy and was happier.  That is a powerful lesson!

* parts of this article appeared in the Dove Self-Esteem Fund Ask Lisa column that ran in community newspapers in 2007 & 2008

Monday, April 09, 2012

Why I Am A Body Image Warrior (and how you can be one too!)

A colleague recently came to me with a personal issue and she prefaced her words to me by saying   “I just need to talk about this with someone who is a body image warrior”. I was excited and intrigued by her assessment of me and I have been giving a lot of thought to that phrase “body image warrior” and what that means for me.

I certainly wasn’t always a body image warrior.  In fact I spent all of my adolescence and early adulthood very much at war with my body. The reasons for this are many and not particularly unique; more important is how I got free of body hatred and learned to make peace.   There were not a lot of books written on the topic.  In fact when I wrote a college essay in my early 20’s that explored my own journey, my professor wrote “this must be published” in her notes.   When I read it over now, it is not a particularly brilliant piece of writing. It was just deeply personal and it had some fresh ideas that were original at the time. I now recognise  that almost no one was saying those things a couple of decades ago. There were no blogs or on line communities for women to explore their wellness.  There were only a few educational programs dedicated to eating disorder prevention in Canada.  Naomi Wolf had just written The Beauty Myth and for the first time, the topic of body image was slowly becoming part of the feminist discourse.  

In my college paper I made links between the experience of early trauma (in my case: several significant deaths in the family) and plummeting self-esteem and how this become internalised as negative body image for girls.  I made connections between the rapid body changes that occur at puberty and how this sometimes led to girls feeling out of control in every aspect of their lives; trying to regain control through control of the body.    I criticised the media messages that tell girls they are never good enough and the diet industry that makes promises that your entire life will be better and changed for the good when you lose weight.  Back then, I had no idea that diets actually don’t work and in fact cause permanent physiological changes to the body that lead to increased weight gain over time and a host of other health problems.[i][ii] I had no idea that 80 to 90% of all girls and women struggle with body image issues.[iii] I didn’t know that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls.[iv]

Now I know these things - I live them and breath them in my work and as a parent every day.  I know that girls are taught through magazine articles, the actions of characters in movies and books and sometimes through their family members to diet, over eat or hate their bodies in response to feelings of sadness, anger or conflict.  With skills to express or resolves these feelings, girls do not have to blame or hate their bodies. No one makes healthy or positive changes in their life from a place of self-loathing.  When girls and women learn to love and respect themselves and their body,  or at the very least learn to accept their natural body… they are most likely to nurture their body with enough sleep, better nutritional choices and balanced, fun activity.  They are less likely to do harm to a body they respect through alcohol, drugs, disordered eating and risky sexual choices.

The media is meaner, the models are leaner and the world is far more fat-phobic than it was 30 years ago when I was muddling my way through adolescence.  The dieting and anti-fat messages come at us thousands of times a day via the radio, social networks, billboards, television ads and shows, websites and magazines.   For these reasons and more… I have become a body image warrior. 

How to Be A Body Image Warrior 

  • Treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their body size.
  • Work to heal you own body disassatisfaction and buld a peaceful relationship with your apperance.
  • Speak up when you hear someone equate fatness with laziness, stupidity or moral inferiority.
  • Speak up when other adults focus all their energy and anger on the “social problem” of childhood obesity; this is adult sanctioned bullying and translates to fat bullying on the playground and in the classroom.
  • There may be real problems in your school or community pertaining to lack of activity and/or appropriate and diverse nutritional options for children and youth; speak up for ALL children of ALL body sizes.  Everyone needs activity because it is fun, builds community and builds skills. It  increases strength and heart and lung capacity. This is about good physical and mental health - not body size. Changing children's body shape and size should not be the goal. 
  • Stop bonding with other women over the things your dislike about yourself (Thighs! Cellulite!) and try bonding over the your joys, interests, values and achievements.
  • Avoid commenting on your children’s weight, your own weight or other people’s weight. Surely there are any number of things to notice and comment on when you greet someone you haven’t seen for a long time other than “you look like you’ve lost weight!”
  • Do not participate in “fat talk” which is the language women are taught to use from a young age.   Fat is not a feeling* so when you hear someone talk about feeling fat, get curious and find out what is going on for them.  Perhaps they are experiencing anger, frustration, loneliness or grief or just got reprimanded by a coworker. Offer some compassionate support for the real issue but don’t engage in the fat talk.
  • Do not participate in diet talk or critique your food or other’s food  – especially when people are eating.  Allow people to enjoy a peaceful, shame-free meal.
  • Believe that all bodies are good bodies! Coach your family & friends to accept and care for their bodies as it is the first step in making positive change to any unhealthy habits.

* With thanks and admiration to body image warrior Sandra Friedman for her ground breaking analysis and identification of the role of "fat talk" in women's lives.

[i] Gaesser, Glen. (2002) Big Fat Lies. California: Gurze Books
[ii] Campos, Paul (2004) The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Gotham Books.
[iii] Health Canada (1999), Women's Health Strategy

Friday, February 17, 2012

Being Real is Really Beautiful

Several years ago I was asked to write an editorial responding to the question “How do you feel attractive as you age?”  It was an interesting question as I wasn’t quite “there” yet in terms of seeing myself as aging.  And while I am intimately acquainted with my hair stylist and I like a new outfit as much as anyone else, I am pretty busy and preoccupied with other pursuits that don’t leave much time or interest for the relentless pursuit of beauty and youth.

However, a number of recent conversations have had me thinking about how important it is to still value our appearance and recognize our own outward attractiveness and worth even  as we age.  Women over forty are almost invisible in the popular culture.  The ones we see most often have had collagen injections, botox or cosmetic surgeries in order to hide the normal process of aging.  

I am pretty comfortable with getting older (because, really, what is the alternative?!)  However,  I seem to offend some of my peers and even my mother when I refer to myself as “mid life” although I see no shame in it.  In my 47th year,  I do see myself as “in the middle” of my life..  that is if all goes very well and I live in to my nineties.   I can fully appreciate though, this resistance to aging.  If aging means disappearing from view and no longer being valued for your contributions to society.   This week I saw a new anti-aging cream directly marketed “to women over 20”.  Seriously.   So in protest to the anti-aging industry and in support of beautiful mid life and older women everywhere..  I offer you this article, edited slightly from the original published by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund in 2009 and no longer available.

Finding Beauty in the Imperfections

My house is over a century old and despite some labor-intensive face-lifts, it is showing its age. There are cracks on the living room ceiling and it is almost impossible to nail something on the wall without creating a 4-inch gaping hole revealing horsehair and crumbling plaster inside. This house constantly needs care and maintenance – everything from new plumbing to new wires – but it is, without a doubt, beautiful.

Like my charming house, I believe it is the imperfect but natural beauty that makes a person unique and interesting. Many women only become of aware of their own true beauty with age. Friends often tell me that they finally began to feel attractive only in their 30s or 40s. Do we feel more beautiful as we age because our definition of beauty changes? Or are we finally more comfortable with our own imperfections? I think it’s a little of both.

Of course that doesn’t mean mid-life and older women don’t have appearance pressures of our own! We are expected to be thin and work at weight loss into our later years despite our body’s natural tendency to gain weight in order to protect our bones after menopause; we are expected to maintain shiny white teeth despite decades of dinner dates over red wine and hundreds of Sunday brunches with coffee; and we are expected to color, cover, and contour ourselves into eternal youth despite the completely normal and unglamorous process of aging.

my sister Lynn Crowder - this is what beauty looks like
The good news is that despite these pressures, most of the mid-life women I know, while still relatively interested in their external appearance, are no longer consumed by it. For many of us, our lives are like my old house, made beautiful with the riches of love, laughter and creativity. Instead of focusing solely on outward appearances, it’s about the love and energy emanating from inside that shows our true beauty.

In my work and in my life in general, I am surrounded by many pretty girls. Often, these girls are catwalk-thin with wrinkle-free skin, wearing the latest body-conscious fashions. They have shiny highlights, chemically whitened teeth, faux tans, carefully straightened hair and are waxed free of body hair in places that my generation never thought about. These girls are growing up in a generation of beauty pressures and prescribed solutions that surpass anything I experienced at their age. And unlike my bra-burning role models, many of today’s young women don’t seem interested in resisting these pressures.

As a mid-life woman, I could easily feel threatened by them but most of these gorgeous girls simply have no idea of the beauty they possess. Despite their tremendous efforts to achieve this youth-fueled perfection, I can see that they still often feel unloved or unworthy. They are frightened of weight gain, they believe they are unattractive, they focus on imperceptible details of their appearance. I have known girls who spent an entire year obsessed about the shape of their cheekbones, or tormented by how their pants clung the wrong way to their hips. The carefree beauty of youth is lost on them as they struggle against low self-esteem and the culturally-driven illusion that appearance is everything.

The most interesting women I know are those who have made peace with their appearance as they’ve grown older. There is a certain grace about embracing the now that comes with age, regardless of how you look. Beauty is no longer tied so closely with the physical, especially when time takes it out of your control. I have people in my life that are grappling with debilitating arthritis, battling progressive neurological illnesses and fighting cancer. Yet, to me, their strength, courage, determination and spirit make them so much more beautiful than any airbrushed supermodel. Facing adversity or reaping the riches of a life well lived remind us of what really counts and, more importantly, what’s real.

One of my favorite pictures of myself was taken on a beach when my hair was windblown and I wasn’t wearing any make-up. I was completely unaware of the camera and was smiling up at the kite I was flying with my daughter. In one fleeting moment the photographer captured my sense of joy, relaxation and concentration. It was real. I look beautiful because I am completely engaged with life.  Now, when I feel stressed or am lacking confidence, I shut my eyes for a moment and try to remember the kite-flying feeling. This makes me feel instantly capable no matter what I look like that day.

How do I plan to hold on to this confidence as I move into my 50s and 60s? My body and my face are like my beautiful old house. Time will continue to slowly reveal the flaws and I will require upkeep and maintenance to stay healthy and vibrant. Maintaining good nutrition, getting enough sleep and staying active while respecting my body’s decreasing abilities is a practical start.  But it is the laughter, the creativity, and the optimistic quality of my life that will determine my real beauty as I age.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life Lesson: Stop Should-ing On Yourself

So I have learned something about myself recently.  Or re-learned it as we sometimes have to do with certain lessons.   I don’t respond well to shoulds especially the self-imposed ones.  In the therapeutic groups I facilitate,  I call  this particular version of negative self-talk “should-ing” on oneself.. say it fast… it feels just about as good as it sounds.  Which is to say… it feels crappy.   And when I should on myself,  I instinctively resist… or I feel guilty which in turn becomes a cycle of more negative self-talk. 

As a parent,  with a full time employment, volunteer & community responsibilities and a general over-achiever .. there are a whole lot of “have tos” in my life. This is true for most of you.   For me, in order to stay in balance and to achieve some measure of daily happiness I need to fill in around the edges of the “have tos” with spontaneity, free choice, a little bit of wasted time (Pinterest, anyone?!)  as well as openly pursuing my passions.

Starting this blog, fell under the “pursuing passions” category of life.   I have been imagining it over the past year and trying to determine if I had the time or energy but I thought about it constantly.  It was a desire not a have to.  The day it launched I told my best friends that it didn’t matter if anyone read it .. I just need to write it.  Absolutely true.  But that didn’t stop me from doing a little happy dance when I passed the 1,000 "views" mark after just a few days or when the editor of the Girl Guides of Canada Blog asked to re post one of my entries.   One of the lovely things about passions is that they are sometimes even more fun when you share them with others.

But suddenly I messed it up .. by turning my passion into a have to or should.  One day I wanted to write about Girls, Sports and Self-Esteem. It was too much for one post. So I envisioned a three or four part series.  But by the time I wrote Part Two I was ready to do something else. As I mentioned on an earlier post, I have been writing in my head.  Every morning in the shower and on my bus ride to work, my brain is racing with ideas to talk about but I think ... oh I will do that after I finish the series on girls and sports.  I had already promised there would be more. So I was stuck and angry at myself. I wasn't doing what I should do. What I said I would do. So I stopped writing.

It has taken a couple of weeks but after a friend messaged me to say "don't stop writing,"  I noticed what I had done to myself.  Without meaning to, I had  moved something from the “passion” category of life to the “have to/should/deadline” category of my life.  Today I am moving it back.   I don’t know what topic will come next… I only know that I need to write. And I hope very much that you will continue to join me here!

Do you should on yourself too?  Many of us have a list of rules we think we have to live by. These are our beliefs or expectations of how we should behave or how other people should behave. For example:  I should always volunteer when asked...   I should not make mistakes...  I should go to the gym 3 times per week...  I should be more welcoming to the neighbors...

Notice if your internal dialogue frequently contains words and phrases such as  should, must, ought to, duty. Often we apply these rules to other people too which contributes to making us chronically disappointed, angry and judgmental.

Here are a few tips to counteract that particular form of negative self-talk:

Try replacing the word “should” with “want to” or “would like to”…  
I want to go to my yoga class…
I would like to return that phone call…
I want to invite those new neighbors to dinner…
I’d love to volunteer for that organization..

How does it sound in your head? Does it feel true or sound like a lie?  How does it feel in your body? Do you feel less resistance or guilt when it is spoken as a “want” rather than a “should”?

If the should is something you truly don’t want to do… then step back and get some perspective on it.   What is the worst thing that would happen if you don’t do it? How likely is that to happen?  What is the positive outcome of doing it?   Or try applying  Suzy Welch's 10-10-10 rule ...  what are the consequences of this action in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 years?  You may just find that depending on the potential outcome… your should will become a want when you look at it this way.

Most of all, be gentle on yourself.   You are most likely your harshest critic. Try speaking with kindness and love, just as you may encourage a child or a good friend who is struggling to complete a task that is looming.  And check in with yourself … have you turned your greatest joys into shoulds and have tos?   Then it is time to take stock of everything on your plate and re-prioritize.   You are responsible for your own happiness and I promise that no one else is going to come along and relieve you of the pressures you have placed upon yourself. This is something only you can do for yourself.

 I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the dayE.B. White (author of Charlotte's Web)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Girls, Sports and Self-Esteem (part 2)

Apparently writing a blog takes a lot more time and energy than I had imagined!  I hope to be posting more often than weekly... so bear with me loyal followers. I am writing in my head every day and eventually the words will emerge!

Yesterday was National Girls and Women in Sport Day in the United States... I'm not sure if we have a Canadian version of this event but I'll keep you posted.   This reminded me that I haven't yet published my next post which is requiring plenty of research on my part to fully understand the link between sport and self-esteem for girls.  I'll have that up and ready for reading after the weekend. In the meantime, I am re posting this wonderful list from the Canadian Association for the Achievement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.  I first came across this when my daughter was only an infant.   If you read my previous post on Girls, Sport and Self-Esteem, you can imagine that it had never occurred to me that a biological child of mine would play sports.  I didn't have quite the same analysis then that I do now to understand how much my own lack of sporting interest was at least in part environmental.  I also forgot that I only contributed half the genes!  This article has stayed with me.  Years after reading it, when my sport-loving girl joined her first softball team I remembered...  "buy her good equipment" and we did.  I even went so far as to volunteer as a bench coach last season - a challenge that I hadn't ever dreamed of for myself. Ultimately I understood that my involvement would further enhance my daughter's engagement in the sport.  And if you, like me, don't really know what the heck you are doing when it comes to kicking a soccer ball or the finer points of pitching a softball - look for people who do.  Our extended family boasts two aunts who have contributed their skills and knowledge and time to my daughter's sport development.   

So here... I give you the list that inspired and shaped my own responses to my daughter's budding interest in sports.  You can also link directly to the PDF version here.

How Parents Can Encourage Girls to Play Sport 

Photograph your child being active.
  • Enlarge the photo.
  • Frame it.
  • Be proud of it!
Actively support your daughter's involvement in physical activity.
  • Buy her good equipment - not her brother's hand-me-downs.
  • Go and watch her games.
  • Consider volunteering.
  • Drive her to and from practices.
  • Make sure your daughter has time in her life to be active - don't make your daughter sacrafice her involvement in sport so she can babysit or do housework.
Take your daughter to the park and be active with her.
  • Help her learn the fundamental skills of running, throwing, catching and kicking.
 Be an active role model yourself. 
  • Mom's participation in sport increased participation rates of her child by 22%
  • Dad's participation in sport increased participation rates of his child by 11%
 Emphasize fun and fitness rather than competition and slimness
  • Encourage your daughter to try a variety of new activities and help her acquire the skills and equipment she needs to participate.
  • Avoid comments about your daughter's body size and shape.
  • Love and support her just the way she is.
  • Don't undermine her confidence and take the joy out of playing by telling her "she throws like a girl".  Help her to learn the skills she needs to enjoy sport.
Introduce your daughter to active women
All to often women in sport are viewed as cheerleaders, water girls or chauffeurs. Your daughter needs to be exposed to women who are athletes, coaches, officials and leaders in sport.
  • Buy sports books about women athletes.
  • Watch women's sporting events on TV with your daughter. 
  • Take your daughter to women's sporting competitions in your community.
  • Read the sports pages with her and follow the performances of Canada's great female athletes.
 Plan active vacations or weekend excursions
  • Try hiking, cross-country skiing or rafting. 
reprinted from: 
Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity