Preteen’s body image angst arrives with alarming speed
The drama started like clockwork. “When they turn 11 it’s like a switch,” I was told. “Get ready!” they warned. My friends were right, a few months after my daughter’s 11th birthday, the tantrums grew loud and strong. The hormones had arrived.
One of the first tantrums started with arm hair. “I don’t like it! I don’t like it!” my daughter wailed holding out her arms. “What? What?” I asked looking for a scratch, a bruise or a cut. “Look!” she said again as two tears rolled down her cheeks. “My arms have all these hairs on them and it looks bad! I don’t like it. Can’t we do something, Mom?”
I was thrown for a loop. I thought I had prepared her for all the female body changes that come with tweenhood, but the arms? I hadn’t thought about the arms. What was I supposed to say here? I stalled for time. “I’ll try to get some information for you,” I said while she dried her eyes. This satisfied her for a bit, but I felt frustrated.
I wanted to blame our culture for creating unrealistic body images that can only be achieved with Photoshop. But I knew that in her case the culture wasn’t the culprit. I didn’t have any fashion magazines around and I kept her TV watching to a minimum. She reassured me that nobody at school had teased her. No, this came from within, and it shocked me because the same thing had happened to me.
I, too, was in fifth grade when I noticed my arms for the first time. I scrunched them up against my waist and leaned forward to cover them up. That was in the ’60s when
we believed in “letting it all hang out.” Natural was better and the culture wasn’t yet infected with a hottie and cleavage obsession. My mom had been dismissive and unsympathetic so I was left to fend for myself. While nobody teased me about the hair on my arms, the boy next door tried to put a Chiquita banana sticker on my oversized nose, which I hid behind my long straight hair. Eventually I learned to accept my looks and move on, but for years I lived with angst. Surely there was a better way to help my daughter transition into adulthood.
I went to the Internet, but was discouraged by blogs describing moms taking their 6-year-olds to the spa to get a wax job. Another article said that nobody in LA went out without getting their arms waxed first. Couldn’t we just be the way we were?
I turned for help to Terri Moser, a marriage and family therapist associate and certified family life educator at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Southwest Austin.
“You are not going to be able to fix all the situations in your children’s lives,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to carpet their world. But by empathizing; it’s almost like putting slippers on them to soften the road of life.”
Moser also said the best way to empathize is to listen to my child’s concerns and to help her accept the changes.
I took that to mean that I did not have to give in to her whims and decided that a trip to the spa was not going to boost my child’s self-esteem, I would not buy her a cell phone and no, she was not getting a Facebook page even though she was the only 11-year-old in Texas who didn’t have one. My confidence as a parent was growing.
The next day offered another confidence-building challenge. She needed new clothes, and although we had planned a shopping trip to Target she no longer wanted to go. More tears.
“I don’t know what clothes to buy, what looks good on me, I don’t have a good hairstyle and I don’t know what to do about it …” the litany went on and on as she slumped in her moon chair.
In the past I would have said, “but you have cute clothes, your hair is beautiful …” Instead, I tried a different approach. “Oh I see! You don’t like your clothes or your hair?” I used my most empathetic voice.
“I don’t like the way I look, and I don’t know how to pick out clothes!” she cried throwing her hands down in her lap. I bent down and kissed the top of her head.
“Can you take me to the mall please?” she asked.
I let out a deep breath. I knew the day would come when she outgrew Target but I had hoped it would come much later than this. Maybe I would do better at helping her with this new round of insecurity.
“We’ll pick out some outfits, go in the dressing room, and you can decide what looks good on you,” I offered. Then I gave her a blank piece of paper suggesting she make a list of the things that she wanted to accomplish at the mall, hoping the exercise would ease her anxiety.
Ten minutes later she brought back the blank crumpled paper. “I don’t want to do this,” she said laying the paper on my bed. Strike two, but I was not giving up.
At first, things didn’t go well at the mall. The stores I knew that catered to preteens like Limited Too were gone, and Barton Creek Mall did not have a Justice. Zumiez was not her style, and I could tell by her sigh that she was starting to get discouraged. I was an unhip mom, totally out of touch with the tween world. How could I possibly help?
I pressed on, steering her inside a JC Penney store. “Let’s take a look in here,” I suggested.
As we passed a rack of communion dresses, I stopped and sighed, picturing my little girl walking down our church aisle with her hands pressed together. “Mom, no!” My daughter yanked me back into the present and pulled me away from the dresses.
Then she spotted some Snoopy shirts and rushed over to pick out her size. Soon we were making our way to the dressing room with an armful of shirts and shorts. As I watched her try on different outfits I could see her attitude change.
“I like this one and this one, not this one, “ she said separating the clothes into piles but staying within my budget.
She also chose outfits that were more sophisticated than the peace sign T-shirts and cut-offs she usually wore. I was sure she would reject one pair of dressy shorts with silver buttons down the sides, but they went in the “yes” pile as well. My little girl was growing up.
As we headed home I could see a change in her demeanor. She was smiling, she walked with a purpose and she seemed to have more confidence. I felt proud that she had been able to resolve her identity crisis, but I kept flashing back to the communion dresses, thinking about the 8-year-old she had once been, but would be no more. Yes, the coming years were going to be a challenge … for both of us.