Most mothers likely want their daughters to develop a positive body image and a healthy sexual self-esteem. However, many moms inadvertently act in ways that are counter to this goal, often because they may feel shy or embarrassed to talk about their bodies and sexuality. This message may, over time, get passed along to their daughters.
What is a healthy sexual self-esteem, exactly? This refers to a person’s ability to connect to their sexual identity and self in an age- and developmentally appropriate way. Healthy sexual self-esteem could mean experiencing our body in a sexual way, enjoying our body sexually, and eventually sharing our body sexually with someone else. Many moms tell me they want to raise their daughters to be like this one day. They want their daughters to feel great about their bodies and to experience pleasure when they are older, in a healthy adult relationship. The question is: how do we get there?
First of all, it may be necessary to reframe the part of you that still believes talking to your daughter about her body and sexuality may be harmful. The research does not support this notion. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for example, researchers Kohler et al. found that adolescents who received comprehensive sex education were significantly less likely to report teen pregnancy than those who had received abstinence-only education. In fact, abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse, but comprehensive sex education did.
With the research firmly on the side of talking to your daughter about her sexuality, how do you go about it?
- Start early and deliver age-appropriate messages. This conversation is a years-long one. Don’t wait for children to ask questions or initiate, as some may be too embarrassed. As the adult, overcome any discomfort you feel and talk to them.
- Model healthy body image, no matter your shape or size. Reject media images of so-called ideals. Promote a greater picture of health and nutrition rather than focusing on fat or weight specifically. Model appropriate affection with your partner.
- Be real. This means being direct, honest, and conveying the facts alongside a positive and affirming perspective.
- Put a positive spin on bodily functions (i.e., “You threw up because your body was saying the food you ate did not work well in your body. Your body can be trusted and knows how to protect you!”).
- Don’t shame their bodies by saying things like, “Go put your clothes on,” or, “Don’t run around the house naked.”
- Teach them the correct names of body parts: vagina, penis, testicles, etc.
- When the time comes/when they ask, tell them how babies are made. For example: “When a mommy and daddy love each other very much, the mommy’s egg meets the daddy’s sperm and that makes a baby. Then the baby grows in the mommy’s uterus until it’s big enough to come out. When the baby’s ready, the uterus squeezes, and the baby comes out of the vagina. Then mommy’s body goes back to the way it was.”
- Put a positive spin on distressing changes (i.e., “You are becoming a woman! That’s wonderful! Welcome to the world of womanhood.”). At the same time, discuss openly any negative aspects of puberty-related changes rather than glossing over them.
- Tell stories from your childhood—your first period, perhaps, or even embarrassing stories. Show them that you survived and they will, too.
- Don’t shame their bodies with messages like, “You can’t wear that.”
- Teach them about male and female puberty, natural bodily changes, and the basics of sex.
- Take your daughter to get her first bra. Bring it up; she may be too embarrassed.
- Give her deodorant, a razor, sanitary pads, tampons, etc. Tell her you have noticed she’s becoming a beautiful young woman. Again, pre-empt these things.
- Encourage your daughter to trust her body and to listen to it (i.e., if she gets a stomachache before a test, talk to her about how her body is telling her something).
- Again, don’t shame their bodies. Talk about what messages they want to portray about themselves by the way they dress and appear. Share examples from your own life.
- Talk about relationships as portrayed in books and movies and how those portrayals differ from real life. Talk about couples dynamics and what your child may like/doesn’t like about how relationships are portrayed vs. the reality of relationships.
- Don’t encourage her to hide her wanting to grow up. Pick your battles. If you find out she’s tweezing her eyebrows, it’s not the end of the world. Instead, help her find an article online about eyebrow tweezing (or whatever else) and use this as an opportunity for open discussion. Shaming a child can lead the child to want to hide things from you later.
- Talk to her about her period. Introduce her to the variety of menstrual supplies available and encourage her to explore all of them to discover what works best for her. Tampons may seem scary, for example, but using them may help some adolescents become more comfortable with their bodies. Help her get used to her period as a normative event, not something shameful or secret.
Raising any child is difficult, but raising a daughter may come with its own particular challenges. To promote healthy body image and sexual self-esteem, keep your conversations real and regular, be a trusted resource for accurate information, and model what you want your daughter to aspire to both in and out of relationships.
Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., & Lafferty, W. E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344-351.
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