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I Have a Young Daughter and I am the Language Police

By Zoey Martin - 21st February 2011

I once saw a study that showed that teenage girls’ self-esteem was linked to how represented their race was in the mainstream media. It was an American study. So Native Americans who were the most under-represented racial group in the media had the highest level of self-esteem, followed by African Americans with Caucasian teenagers at the bottom of the pile. They drew the conclusion that it was because if you see somebody of the same racial group on the front of a magazine you think that if you just lost the right amount of weight, did the right exercise, had the right clothes or wore the right make up you could look like that. Whereas, somebody of a different racial group would never be able to look like that no matter what changes they made.

The media beast seems huge in comparison to the impact that two parents might have on one daughter. I’ve heard of people who ban all women’s magazines (or men’s magazines for that matter) from their home in an attempt to hold out the tidal wave of media representations and expectations.

To some extent it can feel hopeless as a parent - no matter what you do, you fear your daughter will feel too fat or too tall or too ugly or too skinny or just not perfect enough. But I think that would be a mistake. As parents, it’s less about keeping the magazines out of our house and more about keeping them out of our psyche. All of the unconscious, tiny little things that we say every day have an impact on our kids.

Innocent things. Like poking a gorgeous toddler tummy and pronouncing her to be a ‘skinny minny’ or examining yourself in the mirror to see what kind of a ‘fat day’ you are having. Or things that are jokes to adults, but are literal to children. I’ll admit it, I am the language police. There is an increasingly long list of words and phrases that are getting banned from my house. I’m a word geek, so it’s not hard. The list starts with the obvious ones that are just plain sexist or derogatory and goes right down to the more innocuous (or seemingly so). My daughter had a scratch on her face the other day, just on her chin. And while my husband might have made a comment in the past about not wanting her to have a scar on her beautiful face, now he just says she’s an adventurer. Because the language police already dealt with him earlier.

I can’t expect my young daughter to read my mind and know what is irony, sarcasm or honesty. I think I have to be explicit about what I’m saying and not just allow all the prejudices, expectations and double standards creep into our life at home for her to interpret without guidance. And at the same time I also think we have to be so over-the-top with our demonstration of love that there can be absolutely no doubt. If they are not totally humiliated and embarrassed by how much we love them, then I think we might be doing it wrong.

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