When Samantha was approaching her 16th birthday, filled to the brim with hormones and age-appropriate levels of low self-esteem, her mother – who had just undergone her first facelift – asked her if she would like her ears pinned back as her birthday present. “The truth is, I’d never really considered that there was anything wrong with my ears until that moment,” Samantha admits. “Mum had always made me wear my hair in a bob, and steered me away from the trend at the time of scraping your hair back with a neon scrunchie, and suddenly in that moment I realised why. I had a flaw that needed to be fixed. I was an embarrassment the way I was. What would people think of me?”
The truth is, we all seek approval from others. Men do it through their jobs, what car they drive, how they provide for their family. Women’s need for validation is more emotionally driven – can you see me? Do I matter? From the moment of birth babies learn to behave in a way to get their mother’s attention – and to keep it. They pick up the things that make their mother pleased with them, and the things that make her cross. They become ‘conditioned’ from infancy to arm themselves with a way of thinking and reacting that is aligned with their mothers’ and society’s expectations of them.
Laura Arens Fuerstein is the author of the book My Mother My Mirror. Throughout the daughter’s childhood, Fuerstein says, “Mothers and daughters become mirrors for each other’s sense of self. When mothers have a realistic self-image, the modelling is healthy, but mothers who find fault with some element of their body or personality can produce daughters who see themselves through the same distorted mirror.” Like Samantha, if you grow up with a mother who constantly talks about her body and her dissatisfaction with it, it gives you the message that feeling bad about your body is the norm.
Encouraging women to let go of their insecurities and gain a greater sense of self-esteem is what Helen Williams, Director of Personal Development at Lifeworks in Dubai, does every day, and she says that this mother-daughter dichotomy plays out in her office regularly. “Every time I’m sat opposite a woman who’s anxious about her body, I let her talk and then I gently say, ‘tell me about your mother…’ and in almost every case it becomes immediately clear that her conditioning to feel shame, or hatred of her body, comes from her mother’s view of her own body.”
The age-old advice passed down from mother to daughter of ‘look nice for your husband or he won’t want you,’ is grounded in the belief that what’s on the outside matters more than our emotions. Which leads us into the arena of control. “We all have the need to control something, and our outer beauty is an easy one to control, through make-up, plastic surgery, dieting and the clothes we wear,” Williams adds. “Fixing our sense of inner beauty is much harder and requires a lot more work, which is why for some people, an unhealthy amount of importance is levelled at appearance.
“If you’ve got an emotionally mature mother then she’ll talk to you about your attributes and who you are that makes you special. But if not, what you look like and how you dress, and what you accomplish seems to be much more important than how you feel.”
Halting your hang-ups
Becoming aware of patterns and the language used in our homes is a good first step. How many of us have sat back after a big meal and said, “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” Or “Let’s be naughty and have a slice of cake.” Innocent phrases that imply eating can be a sin. Or when running late for school drop-off we say to our kids, “I’ll be there in a minute, I just need to put my make-up on” – a statement that is almost the same as saying, “I am unable to face the world without putting a mask on”; “I am not good enough barefaced”.
Children absorb everything that goes on. You can say ‘you’re beautiful, you’re perfect’, as much as you like, but if every day your daughter sees you looking in the mirror, focusing on your flaws and grimacing, then it’s sending the message to her that you’re not happy with yourself and the whole package of who we are doesn’t matter. “Mothers can be the greatest teachers in the world,” Williams says, “if they are happy themselves.”
How to ditch the baggage
In the same way clearing out a cupboard full of old junk can be incredibly cathartic, Nicki Anderson, an occupational therapist specialising in child and family mental health, suggests that we look at becoming a parent as an opportunity to “clean out your stuff” – that is, the issues and insecurities we’ve been lugging around with us since our own childhood. “Being a positive influence on our children’s sense of self isn’t on the surface level,” she says. “It isn’t a case of simply deciding, ‘I’m going to change that pattern’ and then doing it; it’s about the unconscious. It’s not enough to try to hide our insecurities from our daughters, we have to discover them, and face them head-on to dissolve them.
“Being a parent is the biggest trigger to our own childhood. So many conversations or situations will stir up a memory of when we were young, and we have a conscious decision to replicate the behaviour of our childhood, or to change it. If you fear something, go into that, unfold it, work through it, and don’t pass it on. Discovering your triggers doesn’t make you a negative person, it makes you an informed one.”
She adds, “Too many people strive for perfection, which ultimately leads to unhealthy obsessions and impossible goals. It’s OK to show your children the full repertoire of emotions. Cry when you are sad, dance when you are happy. It gives them permission to be emotional themselves. To explore how they feel. You allow them to grow, to reach their innate potential.” Author Dara Chadwick in her book You’d be So Pretty If… stresses the importance of mothers modelling confidence by being a good example themselves. She says, “Don’t refuse to wear a bathing suit or dance at a wedding because you think you’re too big or don’t look right. You’ll be teaching her that only ‘perfect’ people get to have fun in life.”
Teaching our children to pursue perfection is as unhealthy as pointing out their flaws. The term ‘conscious parenting’ has entered our vocabulary in recent years, and it highlights the dangers of pushing the pursuit of perfection on to our children. Clinical psychologist Dr Shefali Tsabary, and the author of the award-winning book The Conscious Parent, has given seminars all over the world on this topic. “The Ego wants everything around it to be grand and idealised,” she says. “So even with our children, we don’t want them to simply be ordinary beings, fallible human beings. That’s what we are. We want them to be the greatest manifestation of ourselves…”
Tsabary references how many parents become caught up in the glory of their kids excelling in being the best speller, the fastest runner, the most beautiful – “unless they are winning the trophies and standing on the pedestals of glory, we will just completely not recognise them.” Which takes us back to our innate need to seek approval. For children to develop a secure and strong sense of self, we shouldn’t wait to praise them for some outstanding moment of achievement, we should focus instead on what we, as adults, take for granted. Tsabary points out, “It’s in the ordinary moments of when they get up in the morning and when we help them brush their teeth and when they bend down to tie their laces. It’s all about these moment-to-moment instances that call for connection.”
A recurrent theme with every expert is the idea of being authentic. If we strip away our own conditioning, our own agendas, our own belief system and instead let our child’s ‘story’ develop, then it all helps strengthen the child’s self-esteem. “A child just needs to know that they have the answers within them. When they ask you an emotional question, hand it back to them, bring your hand up to your heart and say ‘what do you think about that?’” says Williams. “Say to her, ‘I love the way you think. I love your choices. Talk to me about why you’ve chosen this.’ Let them explore, let them know that their opinions matter.”
Let them be their own guides
The secret seems to be in providing a safe and secure space for them to grow. To constantly check in with them and give them the tools to trust their inner guidance. “Let them try and make sense of situations before you wade in with your own opinions and belief system. Use phrases like, ‘when you reacted like that, how did that make you feel?’” suggests Anderson. “Explore their statements; if your daughter comes home from school and says, ‘I’m fat,’ because she’s heard it from her friends, ask, ‘what does the word fat mean to you?’ What it means to her, may be completely different to what it means to you. Resist in putting the heaviness of your own experience on to her.”
Karen Pagarani was a social worker in London before moving to Dubai. As a mother of four, she started to become uncomfortably aware of how much importance the teenage friends of her daughters were putting on beauty. “I found it quite distressing how appearance-particular some girls in my daughters’ social groups were becoming; I could see them struggling with their identity. I knew from my own background in social work that once a problem is there, it’s much more difficult to tackle, so I wanted to talk to younger girls, to establish a good sense of self before the issues of the teen years start to manifest themselves.”
Her solution was to set up a group called Pink Power, which is aimed at 10- to 12-year-olds. Through role-play, meditation and confidence-building games the girls find out who they want to be, how they could react in different situations and how to learn to trust their instincts. By instilling a sense of empowerment at an early age, Pagarani hopes that the girls’ inner strength would guide them through any tough times ahead.
As I prepared to leave Helen Williams’ office after our chat, she confided, “For mother’s day this year, I received an email from my daughter, who is now a mother herself. In it she wrote the line, ‘You always believe in me, which means I believe in me.’ Which is, after all, all any mother can wish for.”