Some parents have asked her to erase the tantrum tears of a young child. Other parents have asked her to edit cradle cap, poor posture and run-of-the-mill teenage acne. Taylor Jackson, 35, a Richardson-based photographer, recounted the time a client asked her to shoot a teen from a certain angle for his senior pictures so that his face wouldn’t really show—and the client made the request right in front of her son.
“You could just tell that he was so embarrassed,” Jackson says.
The mother of three (soon to be four) has received a lot of editing asks from parents over the years, some stranger than others, but she’s noticed another trend during her photo sessions: parents—moms especially—joking about their own weight or hair or wrinkles.
“They’ll ask to be shot from a certain angle, they’ll say they haven’t gone to the gym in a while, they don’t want to show their wrinkles, that sort of thing,” Jackson explains. “They’ll usually say it in a joking way, but they’ll almost always say it in front of their kids—and their kids are listening!”
As a professional, Jackson knows all too well that cameras can really bring out our personal insecurities. They can make us feel self-conscious. Now that we live in an age of likes and shares, family photos have moved out of the privacy of our homes and into our more widely viewed timelines and Instagram feeds. As a result, we’re careful to scrutinize these images of ourselves and quicker to cringe at what we see.
But as a parent, Jackson is also sensitive to how voicing these insecurities in front of young children can indirectly shape their developing self-image. Whenever a parent “is voicing her insecurities in front of her kids about being too fat, or having wrinkles or hiding things, it makes the kids look at their own images in a mirror and wonder about these sorts of things,” Jackson says.
In other words, when we as parents make uncomplimentary observations about ourselves, no matter how light-hearted, what our kids are actually hearing is that these things—hair, weight, signs of aging—matter. And younger children don’t yet understand the nuance of self-deprecatory humor. They closely watch their parents and caregivers for social cues about how to move through the world, and the way the people they love talk about themselves can really impact whether kids develop a positive, healthful self-image. And that can last a lifetime.
When we think of “kids” and “self-image,” we tend to think of teenagers, but the formation of a positive sense of self starts much earlier than that, typically at 18 months of age. And in this touched-up, filtered world, where every moment captured is a moment in the golden hour, teaching our children how to love themselves, both inside and out, is more important than ever.
Puberty, Now on Insta
Helping your children develop positive self-images in their early years will blunt some of the image hits they’ll take as they enter puberty. These image hits come from all over—external sources like media messaging and the peer-to-peer pressure to conform to a certain “look,” as well as the internal experience of looking in a mirror and seeing (or not seeing) a dramatically changing physical appearance. The onset of self-consciousness and body insecurities during these years is an experience shared by most tweens and teens, regardless of gender. Which is to say, it’s not just girls who experience self-image issues.
When Abby Rathkopf’s eldest son, Devin, turned 11, he started gaining weight, even without significant dietary changes—and then he started calling himself fat. While the Carrollton mom wasn’t as concerned about his actual weight (which fell within the “normal” range), she was more concerned about how it was affecting him. She was particularly struck by how her normally laid-back son was concerned about his body image during that time.
“For him to actually say something was really surprising,” the 38-year-old says. “It really bothered him.”
Most of us have our own stories about these uncomfortable years. We look back on old school photos with horror at our evolving sense of style and with vivid memories of every little thing we didn’t like about our physical appearance. Why were we so hard on ourselves?
“What we’ve got to stop and recognize is that as soon as young girls and boys reach the age of puberty, their bodies begin to change in ways that trigger insecurities. This is normal. No one gets a pass,” says Dr. Kelly Jameson, a Dallas psychotherapist.
This has been the experience for the many adolescents Jameson’s treated over the years. But now there’s social media, which only adds to the pressure to measure up that teens and tweens feel.
“Scrolling and scrolling [through social media feeds] can make these insecurities all the greater,” she says.
Keisha Howard Gaddis is a certified life coach and the founder of PEARL Girls, a Dallas organization that promotes self-esteem and teaches social skills to young girls. She understands all too well how the demand to be in the public eye via social media can lead to long-lasting self-image issues.
“They see these happy and beautiful images of their friends,” she says, “and when they feel like they don’t measure up, they begin to have self-doubt, and that can spiral into other things.”
A lack of self-confidence can reverberate through adulthood. That’s why it’s important for parents to help their kids love themselves, no matter how young they are.
“Build them up in their younger years so they’ll have the confidence and courage to face the haters and challenges they’ll have to deal with in high school,” Howard Gaddis says.
So how in the world can we prepare our younger kids for this #world? The answer is we start now.
How They See Themselves
How we praise our children can go a long way in nourishing how they see themselves in the world around them. Howard Gaddis urges parents to highlight their children’s efforts rather than their appearances.
“When they hear, ‘You’re so pretty’ or ‘You’re so smart’ as encouragement,” she explains, “that can really add to the pressure” they experience in their teen years.
Instead, she advises, “praise their efforts … so they’re confident in themselves, and that will empower them to work through the challenges they’ll come up against.”
Giving your children the space to shape their own identities can go a long way in helping them love who they are. Jackson does this by allowing her 7-year-old daughter the freedom to choose her own outfits.
“I let her wear what she wants to wear,” Jackson says. “I’m not going to say ‘that’s ridiculous’ about whatever she wants to wear. I’m going to let her develop her own sense of style and self-expression—modest and weather-appropriate, of course!”
Rathkopf, whose older son began calling himself “fat” at age 11, is now much more sensitive to how her boys view themselves. She actively listens to her younger son, who’s 7, when he expresses misgivings about, for example, getting a haircut.
Another way to help children ward off insecurities is by exposing them to different forms of beauty, including what beauty looks like in other cultures.
That means making an effort to get out of the North Texas bubble whenever you can, Jameson says. But you don’t have to pay for a summer vacation in Europe to do it. Instead, make a point to try out new restaurants or attend local cultural events. You can even drive as far as your local library and look for picture books with rich stories and diverse characters.
Yet even as you give your children other forms of beauty to look up to, remember that their primary role model when it comes to building a positive and healthful self-image is you.
The Biggest Case Study
“Even when you think they’re too young, they’re watching,” says Lauren Stockard, 29. Her son, Hardin, is 2. About 14 months after Hardin was born, Stockard challenged herself to lose the last bit of weight she had gained during her pregnancy. So for a couple of weeks, as part of her weight-loss goal, the Fort Worth mom weighed herself on the bathroom scale every morning. One day, she skipped over this little morning ritual. The next thing she knew, her son had pulled out the scale and stood on it to “weigh” himself.
“He didn’t know how to use it or what it was even for,” Stockard says, but the sight was still alarming. “I didn’t realize just how impressionable he was. I thought I had more time! They pick up on so much, so fast and so early!”
To take a page from social learning theory (which posits that we learn how to act by observing the behavior of others), our kids are always watching us. Or, as Jameson explains, “We are the biggest case study.”
Even children as young as 12 months old are observing how we interact with the world around us. They unconsciously use these quiet, everyday observations to build a template for how they too should interact with the world. They absorb and mimic all the positive things we hope to pass down but also all the not-so-good things—like our own insecurities.
And let’s be honest: We all have them, these insecurities about aspects of our physical appearance, some having to do with aging and a life well-lived, others with the appreciable changes that happen during pregnancy. We tug at the loose skin on our elbows and exclaim, OMG! My elbows look like old-timey crepe! But our children are archiving all of these observations we make.
That’s why Jameson advises against voicing displeasure with our bodies. “There should be no mention by Mom about the insecurities of her body,” she says. “That should be kept very private.”
For Stockard, that single moment with the scale was eye-opening. She knew her son was watching but hadn’t realized how much he was absorbing.
“They see what you’re watching on TV and the food you’re eating,” she says. “They’re listening to how you talk about other people and how you talk about yourself.”
If we understand that our kids are always watching us, then it follows that we can use this as an opportunity to positively influence our children’s developing sense of self. One of the ways Arden Prucha Jenkins, 36, actively promotes a positive self-image in her children (as well as the young women who follow her on Instagram) is by purposefully examining how she presents herself in photos and on social media. The Fort Worth mom of five (spanning ages 3–14) is a professional photographer and former model. In the past, she admits she was very comfortable with using Photoshop to “clean myself up.”
But about five years ago, she began looking at images of herself and thinking, “This isn’t me; this isn’t a fair representation of me.”
“It feels cruddy to present yourself in a Photoshopped way,” she says.
That realization made her rethink how she uses filters on Instagram. In fact, the photographer rarely uses filters, but when she does, she always hashtags the filters she’s using.
“I truly feel these filters are dangerous, especially for our daughters,” she says. She is troubled by how many teen girls she sees on Instagram who carefully edit their stories and images because that false depiction of reality can distort how they see the world around them—and how they see themselves.
So to Jenkins, how parents present themselves in images matters. “Insecurities can really cut you deep but they don’t have to,” she says. “You can be so much more than that.”
How Brave We Are
Before she was even 18 months old, Jenkins’ daughter Lake had three open-heart surgeries. She spent 70 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Cook Children’s Hospital, and all the wires and tubes inserted into her as a newborn, in addition to the surgical incisions, resulted in a lot of scarring.
“One day when she’s older, I imagine she might want plastic surgery to minimize her scars,” Jenkins says. “It would make me sad, but we would support her in that decision. Until then, I can’t even imagine Photoshopping out her scars in photographs of her. It would break my heart.”
For Jenkins, so much of Lake’s personal story of survival and of overcoming incredible odds is written in those scars. For Lake, her scars are something to be proud of. When a little boy at her preschool returned to class for the first time after undergoing an operation to repair a heart defect, Lake sought him out and lifted up her shirt to compare scars.
“Look at how brave we are!” she exclaimed.
This was a moment for her mom to savor. “Lake is very proud of her scars. It’s something she’s very proud of, and I want her to be proud of it,” Jenkins says. “It might not be pretty, but it’s life.”
Lake’s journey has inspired her mother to look at her own image in a kinder, less critical way. And maybe, as we parents strive to encourage our children to love themselves for who they are, maybe we too can learn how to love ourselves—our courage, our strength, our wrinkled elbows and all.