What would you do?

Last week I received an email from a dear friend of mine, Heather. Heather is a laid back, fun, smart and active mom of two little boys. I was a little surprised by the franticness of her email. She gave me permission to share it with you: 

"Andrea: sign me up for volunteering for one of your workshops. Today at the mall (not my fave place) there was a 12-ish year old girl shopping w/ her mother for a swimsuit. She looked like she was in puberty where body was changing and she was a little overweight. However, she was adorable and beautiful. I could hear her mother pushing suits for her to try on. A bit later, I was in the dressing room and I heard someone crying quietly. Her dress was on the floor so I knew it was her. She was crying b/c she didn't like any suits and didn't want to try any one. Her mother asked "What are you going to wear to swim in tomorrow?" And through her tears she said, "I just won't go." I lost it. I was so sad for her...and I really wanted to say something but I didn't. And now I am bummed. I wanted to tell her how adorable she was or maybe let her mom know they could find cute boardshorts rather than a bikini...and I didn't! I wasn't sure if the mom would tell me to buzz off or if I would have made the girl feel worse. ARGGgghhh....I got in my car and called Dan crying and he thought I got jumped or something. But it was so sad and I appreciated your mission before but now that I saw it in action I think you are a super dooper rock star. Anyway, I had to tell you...what do you think I should have done? Does your training give advice on that type of situation????"

I'm posting this for 2 reasons: First, to share with you how common this is. To me, it is unacceptable that a little girl feels so uncomfortable with her body that she doesn't want to go swimming with her friends to what I am assuming is a pool party. And secondly, to ask you to comment with what you would have done in this situation. I told Heather I really didn't have an answer. I would have wanted to tell this little girl I thought she was adorable too. But it's such fine line when we tell strangers things of this nature. Can we possibly undo with one nice comment what year of teasing, media influences and whatever else this girl has seen has done to her self esteem? 

I would love to hear your comments! What do you think, and/or what would you do?  


Danielle Calabrese said...

So sad and so difficult. That poor little thing. I was in a fairly similar situation once. You instinctively want to reassure them of how adorable they look but thinking back you know that puberty throws young girls into a no mans land between chiildhood and womanhood where, particularly these days it seems, they sit in a constant state of uncertainty until they learn how to deal with the new emotions they are feeling. Therefore, anything you say to try and provide reassurance will be treated with suspicion i.e. you are older, therefore you are like my mom, therefore you are just saying that, therefore you have just confirmed that I don't look good in this bathing suit. Being 12 really sucks. When I met the sad girl in the fitting room with her mom, the deal was that she was extremely distressed that her mum was telling her she needed to consider trying a top in an 8 instead of a 6 (craziness!). I pretended to use the mirror outside of my own private hell (ha!) and as she was staring at herself in the mirror I asked her where I could find that top in the store because I loved it on her. I even had the attendant bring me the same top but told her to bring my a 6,8 and 10 because I knew how my smaller there stuff runs.....yes, I tried on a top that a 14 year old was trying on!!!!! haha!! I have no idea whether or not this was the right thing to do but I did get a smilt. How come those stupid little numbers are so damn important to us.... Danielle

Julie Parker said...

Heartbreaking, but as you say Andrea, common. In transporting myself to that situation what I would have done really would have been dependant upon how near I was to the Mum & Daughter & if maybe we had had some eye contact or shared a smile in some way. If that 'ice' had been broken & the timing was right I definitely would have tried to focus on the girl & told her I thought she looked beautiful & said at the same time I have a daughter nearly her age too. I have complimented other women & girls who have been trying clothes on, but never someone in distress. If I felt at the time that I could get a positive bit of love out there - I would, but it's not a given, as of course I would not have wanted to belittle the Mum in any way.

Andrea said...

The following are comments left on my Facebook page in reference to this post:

Kristin says: "Ugh, I don't know what I would do! BUT, I do NOT think that we can possibly undo with one nice comment, what years of teasing, media influences etc have done to her self esteem & that breaks my heart."

Tammy says: "Oh so sad! I remember Dr. Laura saying that when one negative thing is said to you/about you - you hold onto that despite all the positive things that have been said to you/about you. Amazing how the bad seems to stick with us more than the good. I am trying desperately to be sure that my kids, specifically my daughter, grows up with self esteem and that being a kind, friendly, helpful, positive person is far more attractive than any physical attribute. Tough situation for your friend - I think I would have had the same inner struggle. So glad you're here to help our girls be happy with themselves."

Andrea said...

Andrea K. says: "Ok, ladies, IT CAN BE CHANGED! thebodypositive.org My non-profit FINDYOURVOICEPROJECT is under them and I HAVE SEEN them change lives in the last 12yrs. These young 'scarred' girls went through this program and now as young women train/teach teens positive body image. Times are changing and more and more celebs are on OUR side. I believe we are changing the youth of today and every time you 'hear' this scenario I challenge you to fix in that moment. I have and it can be done! :) Goto her sight and see the new DVD trailer...Keep this conversation going Andrea, it's awesome!"

Matthew says: "Her mom doesn't sound so bad, it's not like she was castigating her kid or the kid's body. If she was calling her names, that would be horrible, but also no one's business. I quietly would've said that she looks great. The kind word of a stranger, and that's all you can really do. Women (esp. Americans) have so many hang ups about body issues, they give their daughters complexes even when they're trying to be positive. As a former single dad of a girl (now 7), I just reject what she increasing worries about body wise as totally ridiculous. My mom just complicates things because of her issues.The running out and crying of your well meaning friend (!),is also an example of this.
I'm sorry but I look at a lot of this as women hating themselves and each other. Men don't do anything remotely like this. Having your self worth wrapped in images created by women & gay men (fashion industry) is silly, and needs to be recognized as such. Just stop."

Andrea K. says: "Wow, really? When is the last time you looked at the increasing rise of eating disorders among men today? It's high! The mom didn't TALK or PARENT her daughter. It was her moment to tell her she is beautiful AS SHE IS, not just take the easy way out and ignore her tears likely due to her own issues. As parents we are to remind our children of their worth in beauty, this mother did not."

Matthew says: "Yes, and an overwheming majority of men laugh hysterically at those men with eating disorders. We don't give it more power by turning it into a societal issue. Those guys are even embarassed themselves of their hangup, as they should be. The fact that this mom didn't stroke her kid's ego for those few minutes doesn't mean she was a bad woman. A kids world is tough, and this girl's image of her own body is just her temporary cross to bear. She'll be stronger for it in the end. I was teased about an overbite, among other things. Some kids have zits, other kids are fat, etc.

PS, women please stop killing yourself to get celeb thin, we don't even appreciate it, and the vast majority of us men don't even find it attractive."

Andrea K says: "Wow, I will pray for your daughter with that sincerity..."

Andrea said...

Matthew says: "She's growing up with a positve role model of a hetero man (me) who makes no issue about her appearance. I would never turn a few minutes in a dept store dressing area into a "you're fat, but it doesn't matter" lecture. We had that exchange over the years well before evergetting to the mall.
I'm teaching her to toughen up. My firm hand is tempered with love, and in the end she will win."

Kendra says: "I cannot believe anyone would assume to know or understand what an individuals experience with an eating disorder is like. To say "guys are even embarassed themselves" is making a LOT of assumptions and shows no empathy or understanding at how destructive eating disorders can be. to further add "as they should be" is judgmental and I would be careful that what you type online as it has the power to stay there for years to come.

And to assume women are ONLY doing this to get thin is the icing on the cake - maybe you should do some research, understand what eating disorders are, and have more knowledge before throwing out this blatant myth in society.

this is exactly WHY awareness about eating disorders, and dispelling the MYTHS and breaking the STIGMA behind them is SOOOO crucial and important. Because this is just one person view - and I doubt hes the ONLY one to think these things. We cant blame him for not knowing or understanding something he knows nothing about."

Andrea K. says: "HA! Thank you so much Kendra, beautifully said!"

Andrea said...

I just want to add something quick. I appreciate Matt's point of view and speaking up because he is not the only person in the world that has this view, it's actually pretty common.
(In my best teacher voice) I hope we can all learn something from this and are open to listening to what everyone says.
But I will say this, Matt: My parents also taught me to toughen up. It made me strong and resilient but had an unintended backlash. I thought I had hide all my feelings (and as an emotional female this was scary) and not let anyone know I was anything less than tough and strong. When family crisis would occur I would not say a word b/c everyone said, "You're so tough!" so it was always that. Encourage your daughter to be though AND talk to you about her feelings if she wants to. Just listen. She'll appreciate it when she's 25 even though she won't tell you when she's 13.

Andrea said...

Kendra says: "I agree. Its important to be open to others points of view. It also can help us learn more & find a way to try to break these myths, stereotypes, etc. I think its very important to accept who are daughters/sons are - and guide them to be strong, independent, individual, and full faceted/dynamic. The ability to express emotions and talk about things that bother us shouldnt be something girls/boys are taught to "hide" or "toughen" up over. Its ok to have our feelings, without judgment, and finding a way to communicate to the children in our lives that its ok to be all they are."

Danielle says: "I think this has pretty much all been covered but I feel I have to throw this in anyway. A friend of mine suffered with extreme self esteem issues as a teenager and eventually developed an eating disorder. This wasn't because she wanted to look like one of the models she'd seen in a magazine or a singer on TV. In fact she was abused as a child and the realization of what had happened to her bubbled to the surface around her 14th birthday. It's extremely naive to assume that issues with self esteem can be entirely attributed to images young girls or boys see in the media or some teasing in the playground and that self loathing and eating disorders are related to simple vanity. Thank goodness the extremely strong, talented and intelligent woman am I friends with today was given the correct guidance and support instead of being told she should be ashamed of what she was feeling. She didn't need her ego stroking....she just wanted someone to listen."

Matthew says: "I have male pattern baldness. Well, actually it's just thin in the front. What would any of you really think if I said something like "there aren't any positive media images of men with thinning hair" or "men are drilling HOLES in their heads to conform with mass media images of male attractiveness!". Adults don't get their feelings hurt by magazines, children do, and it's the job of adults to tamp down on that nonsense in their lives.

Yeah, I understand eating disorder are supposedly about being able to control an aspect of ones life, but ultimately it means a change in body, the desired result.

"Toughen up" does not mean hiding feelings. It means going on in spite of your feelings.

PS: Do you think anyone in Rwanda or Afganistan has an "eating disorder" or "body dismorphia"?"

Danielle says: "Hmmm, yes. Maybe mass genocide is the way to rid us of eating disorders."

Heather said...

Wow. I am just catching up on this and I am the one who wrote Andrea the note.

A few things: Danielle you are a riot (re: mass genocide)...love your sense of humor girl!

Matthew: I respect your opinion but wanted to point out that your posts come across as flippant toward the subject matter and full of sweeping generalizations. If people could "just stop" negative or destructive behaviors wouldn't the world be full of shiny, happy people? And since it is not, since there ARE issues...they need to be addressed, not just pushed aside, scoffed at, discredited or discounted.
Also, just to clear up the situation a bit, I did not dramatically run out of the store (well meaning as I was)...I finished up, did not see the girl after I left the dressing room (part of the reason I made the decision not to say anything...she was in a stall and it would have been obvious I was listening) and then when I got to my car, called my husband. Who, I would like to point out, listened and saw the opportunity to embrace compassion.
Andrea, thank you for posting this and although I didn't take an opportunity with this young girl, I hope it does help with your mission.


Hi Andrea - I'm so glad you posted this. It sounds like a scene right out my own life's story. I went through this growing up... and to some degree, I still do.

I was in a gym once and overheard a girl (of about the same age as the one in your story) begging her mom for 'lipo' because it was 'SO much easier than THIS [working out]'. The mom looked like she frequented her local plastic surgeon & merely laughed at her daughter's request. It broke my heart. There was NOTHING wrong with the girl's body, and even if she HAD been a bit overweight (though she wasn't in the slightest), it was wrong of her mother not to counter her far-too-casual lipo requests with an explanation as to why her daughter should love her body and love herself.

What did I do? I took a chance. Although I may not have said something under other circumstances, I had to try. I walked past her and quietly said, "Don't get lipo. It's not worth it." The girl laughed but then stopped and smiled once she realized I wasn't joking. I smiled, nodded and walked away. The mom? You can bet she gave me a dirty look, wondering what I had just said to her daughter.

Did I do the right thing? I'm not sure. I can only hope that the mother thought twice after that... probably not, but I can hope. Maybe the young girl at least knew someone was on her side (though she may not know it until she's older).


Anonymous said...

People like Matthew make me want to scream. All ignorance makes me want to scream, though.

My mother told me when I was around ten that I needed to lose weight. I began crash dieting. 6 months later the bulimia started. I'm in my twenties. I'm still bulimic.

When I was in high school, I worked the concession stand. I can't tell you how many times I sold DIET this and DIET that to girls between the ages of 5 and 10. I kept trying to tell myself that they must be diabetic or just prefer the taste of the diet soda. But something tells me that wasn't the case. :(

Anonymous said...

I don’t know what I would do, but here’s what I know:
1. In awkward situations, tell the truth, make eye contact, and smile a lot
2. I learned HERE that true empathy is a relationship between equals - not between the wounded and the healed. If you really want to have an impact on someone, you must be vulnerable and show them what you have in common.
3. One of the reasons media images are so damaging to the imaginations of young girls is that the strong, imperfect, mature women in their lives tell young girls watered down, pretty versions of their personal histories instead of telling the truth.
4. That resilience only happens when you can truly see someone else’s perspective.
5. That I still prefer conservative bathing suits - and that the fact that they’re coming back into fashion bodes wonderful things for all the games women and girls can play together at the beach.

i'd also like to add that being that age is just pickles in general. Friends don't know how to be friends, girls say cruel things to one another, everyone is just trying to defend themselves, and they stop being kind. She may not have needed empathy about body size. She may have needed empathy about how hard it is to build quality friendships.