This was the conversation at my dinner table last Wednesday night.
I worked until 6:30, and my husband and daughter were already home when I got there. I walked in the front door which opens onto a foyer, and directly opposite the door is a chest of drawers with a mirror above it. There, seated regally and plumply on the chest with her back to me, gazing at herself in the mirror, was our cat Purr.
Purr is an unusual cat in that she’s clumsy in an inner ear problem sort of way. We’ve seen her, many times, fall off surfaces that aren’t moving, and this endears her to us. She also lopes to the car like a puppy whenever we pull into the driveway, and we call her The Big Fat Rabbit, because in terms of physique, she has a rabbit’s figure. When she bounds toward the car to greet us we stoop down to her, and say in embarrassing voices, “Who’s a Big Fat Rabbit? Whooo’s a Big Fat Rabbit?!!”
So, at the dinner table I started to tell this funny story of Purr checking herself out.
“Guess what I saw when I walked in the door tonight?”
My 11-year-old giggled, “Purr! Looking at herself in the mirror!”
“You saw her too? How long was she sitting there…and what on earth do you think she was thinking?” I asked.
My daughter answered: “Does this fur make my butt look big?”
I didn’t think I’d ever wondered that in front of my daughter (out loud anyway), so I asked her if she’d ever heard me ask that question.
“Then where did you hear something like that?”
“The Disney Channel.”
Somewhere between Disney and my physical referencing of our cat as big and fat, we’d ventured into the uncharted territory of trans-species body image. The cat seems fine with it, but it made me wonder how I could help my daughter combat this particular kind of female self-examination that had trickled down to her.
“Does this make my butt look big?” is a question so routine it’s become fodder for comedy. Apparently even for children. We know our culture is fixated on critiquing women’s figures. Is it a fixation women want to perpetuate by continuing to ask questions like this?
Women sharing impressions of their physical presentation, or complimenting each other is fine. Who doesn’t love a compliment? It’s problematic when it’s the primary way we communicate with each other, and it’s harmful when it’s somehow degrading. It can be a part of what we talk about, but it doesn’t have to be so central and negative. We often give this type of communication priority, and when we do, we give it a place of honor and teach our girls (boys and men) this is the way it’s done. That’s how that question became a running joke.
My daughter is learning about solubles and solutions in science, and what she’s learning there dovetails with what I want to teach her about how girls and women can experience themselves. If you make lemonade that’s too tart, you can’t remove the lemon juice from the solution. You make it less tart by adding sugar and more water. So it is with ratios of human experience. We can’t simply remove the pressure our culture places on girls and women, but we can dilute its strength by fortifying the other emotional and mental ingredients in our girls and ourselves.
Here are some tips for diluting the counteractive attention that drifts down to our girls: Don’t dissect and judge your body parts or those of other women in front of her, and don’t do it to hers. When she asks for your opinion on how she looks, teach her to be true to herself, not to cultural stereotypes. Ask her what she feels good in, then ask what it is about that that makes her feel good. This way you’ll learn what’s important to her, and open up a dialogue around these issues. When you give a compliment, use language that doesn’t reinforce the equation thin equals best. Better to say “you look great” or “that really flatters you,” rather than “that makes you look so skinny.” The goal is for her to feel confident, not thin. In all cultures, even ones that embrace the full figure, the goal needs to be confidence.
Focus on her feelings and thoughts so that she experiences herself as three dimensional, and do it on all fronts, not just to stave off self loathing. Teach her to respect her own take on things; let your interest in her perspective nudge physical appearance off the alter of worship. Devote your attention to qualities you value that have nothing to do with her physicality, like her intelligence; empathy; humor; intuition; forthrightness; musical ability; or athleticism. And when you talk with her ask questions and make statements that draw these qualities out:
What’s your opinion?
What do you think?
What does it mean to you?
What do you feel?
How do you want to handle it?
What feels right to you?
That’s a great point.
I disagree, but I see your point.
Tell me more.
The fuller her range of confidence, the more able she’ll be to hold her own against all social pressures. Neither a girl nor a woman needs to ask anyone else for validation on how she feels comfortable in her body or her clothes. She can decide for herself how to feel her best. If a girl is supported in being whole, maybe she’ll grow into a woman who appreciates the softness of her curves, and the complexities of her mind and heart.
You’re on your own with your cat.