This time last week, my growing girls were excitedly unpacking a delivery of new summer clothes.
Our two eldest are 17 months apart but are the same height, though different builds. H, our eldest has long accepted that she will shortly be overtaken!
I had ordered the girls both the same items but in different colours/patterns (twee maybe but saves the arguments and actually, I just cannot help myself!). The items which elicited the biggest grins and exclamations of pleasure were the 2 playsuits I had ordered and H saved her favourite thing for last (like Daddy and food!). We all enjoyed watching L try hers on and it fitted her perfectly (despite the size being 2 years ahead of her age).
All other items tried on by both girls, H carefully unpacked her navy and white striped playsuit and unable to restrain herself any longer quickly scrambled into it. She popped her hands on her hips to admire herself in the mirror….. She looked like she was wearing aged 11 (she turns 7 in a few weeks). I looked at Dan: “ It’s fine, she will grow into it”. I looked at H: “ Oh H, sweetheart, you are just so skinny!” and then started to tidy the packaging.
A few moments later H was quietly sobbing on the bed. I instantly knew my mistake.
Of course, if anyone had called me skinny I would be delighted but to a 6 year old, who is not aware of the expectations on women in our society, all I had done is mocked her physical attributes over which she has no control. How could I?
H was heartbroken. Firstly the most prized item in the delivery did not fit her (and so she couldn’t wear it that very moment); secondly, it fit her younger sister perfectly; and thirdly, I had laughingly singled her out for being different.
Of course, I swept her up, apologised and did eventually calm her down, but needless to say as a mum, I have been wracked with guilt and worry ever since.
A few days later I discussed the incident with a good friend when we spoke about girls, body image and when they might come to realise their differences and feel any pressure to look, dress, act a certain way. During this discussion, I was further horrified to recognise that we have probably neglected to celebrate H’s beauty in the same we have L’s. Aware that L is very tall for her age and aware she fills out clothes differently to her petite sister, our behaviour has been conditioned by our feelings and judgments as adults without appreciating the need for approval that our eldest daughter inevitably has in equal measure. For example, we constantly applaud L’s lovely long legs and talk to her about her beautiful eyes. Not wanting to celebrate being thin and petite (we don’t want L to feel pressure to be the same as H), we instead focus on praising H’s achievements (though of course L gets praise for this too). This assumes that both girls want to be thin – when hopefully at this age, it doesn’t cross their minds and they are more concerned about who has the best cart-wheel and who can run the fastest. It also goes without saying that we would never want one of the girls to feel favoured over the other.
So, two valuable lessons in one then and at least we have learnt them now.
In my last blog, I celebrated the ability of a child to have complete self-belief. Equally, children have wonderfully high self-esteem. They are loved, they love themselves without question and they believe they deserve to be loved. So when I say, “You are so beautiful darling”, it makes my heart sing when they innocently reply “I know Mummy”. Yet we all know that confidence is a delicate and precious gift. It is my job, to never, even unknowingly, be part of the assault on it.