My daughter has fallen in love with pop music. I’m not quite as taken with the synthesized tracks, but I recognize the lure of Top-40 is strong. I try my best to hide my disdain, but I can’t help but point out objectionable material. Initially, I was concerned about inappropriate lyrics, but, as it turns out, objectionable material is not limited to music. On a recent drive, during a commercial break, we were treated to a woman’s pleasant voice selling us on the wonders of liposuction. The ad itself was not surprising; the matter-of-fact delivery was. She spoke as if liposuction is completely routine, and I’m sure my daughter was given the impression it’s just one of those grown-up things she’ll want to buy someday, the same way she may want to buy a Honda. When Ms. Pleasant Voice started in on problem areas, I lost my composure, setting off on a self-righteous rant, stopping just shy of telling her exactly what I thought of her tiny, fat-sucking vacuum.
Later that day, I decided to talk to my daughter about both the commercial and why I had reacted so crazily to it. I started by asking her if she knew what liposuction was. She did not. I described it, watching as her face went from confused to disgusted. Although grossing her out was not my intent, I’ll admit I was pleased it had that effect on her. More importantly, though, I wanted to address the topic of “problem areas.” “What really upset me,” I said, “was they kept talking about ‘problem areas’ and it really bothers me when people use those words to describe bodies. Do you know what it means to have a ‘problem area’?”
She answered, “Noooot really…like maybe they have an infection on their kidney or something?”
Stifling a laugh, I acknowledged her answer made more sense than the actual definition. I went on to explain that when people talk about their “problem areas,” they are referring to parts of their bodies they wished looked better. I braced myself before asking my next question. “Do you ever feel that way about your body, like something should look better?”
In response, she gave me the face she makes to let me know I’ve said something stupid and annoying, followed by an exasperated, “No.” She was clearly finished, but I didn’t drop it. I told her I was glad she didn’t feel like she needed to change anything and the truth was there is no such thing as “problem areas.” She sighed and asked me if we were done. I told her we were, but how can we ever really be done talking about this?
At nine-years-old, my daughter is exactly halfway between childhood and adulthood, a fact that creates a sense of panic in me. I know as she grows into a woman she does so alongside the silent timer of self-loathing that steadily counts down the seconds until she discovers something she hates about her body. How much time is left until she decides the roundness of her belly shouldn’t be there, or until she is embarrassed to be seen in a swimsuit? How long until she comes to believe she should hide herself because she’s completely consumed with the worry of her imperfections being noticed? I’m dreading when that day comes, and I desperately wish I could freeze her in this time when she thinks a problem area is a real problem.
I know it is not possible to separate our personal experiences from the ways we parent, and since I have had my own struggles with body image, I’m not exactly objective on this topic. I don’t really know how to explain to my daughter that self-acceptance is empowering, but equally empowering is being able to do whatever she wants in the name of beauty. Whether she decides to forgo make-up altogether, or some day decides to have cosmetic surgery, I want her to know the decisions she makes are hers alone. I struggle, though, with feeling that when it comes to choices about our appearances, the line between empowerment and resignation is blurry. If she comes to me one day wanting to change something about herself, will it be because it genuinely makes her feel good, or because she thinks she has problem areas?
A few days after our conversation, I noticed my daughter was playing the song “Sit Still, Look Pretty” on repeat. It’s a modern-day feminist anthem if ever there was one. I like to think something from our conversation resonated with her and gave her a new appreciation for the song. Not that she would ever admit that to me, of course. It gives me hope, though. Maybe my words, combined with the perfect pop song, are enough to strike the right balance, enough to make her question the images she sees on magazine covers or radio ads telling her she needs to change. I’m never going to whole-heartedly embrace my daughter’s taste in music, but I certainly appreciate musicians who are comfortable defying convention. If a few electronic beats and autotuned voices lead to my daughter feeling OK about herself, then I’ll gladly accept that help. Maybe I’ll even surprise her by turning up the music sometimes.
About the author: Abra Mims is a writer and single mom living in Boston. Her work has appeared in the online women’s magazine knotsosubtle.com, and will also be featured in the upcoming anthology The Beiging of America. She was a 2016 cast member of the Listen to Your Mother show- Boston, and is the voice behind the blog brownmomwhitebaby.com where she writes about race, parenting, and current events.