"When I sit like this, my legs look skinny." My 12-year-old daughter made this declaration one morning while waiting for her ride to school. She was sitting in our living room, slouched so low that her hips jutted over the edge of the chair with her long legs, encased in a pair of skinny jeans, stretched out before her.
"Your legs are skinny," I replied, trying hard to sound casual.
"No they're not," she sighed. "They're chubby." Then she slid off the chair and stalked to the mirror to glare at herself.
When she says things like this it makes me shudder. It demonstrates that she is already keenly aware of the body image ideals that define women in our culture, and they are beginning to shape the way she views herself.
As her mother, it is my job to translate the barrage of messages she receives in a way that will help her become a healthy, happy woman. But the messages are so conflicting, that even as an adult, I struggle to decipher them.
It is easy to dismiss skeletal models or Hooters billboards as sexist and destructive, but the positive stories about weight and body image can be a lot more complicated. On any day, I'm just as likely to read a story decrying the fashion industry for giving girls impossibly thin ideals to mimic as I am to encounter an article about the crisis of childhood obesity.
Both types of stories are relevant, but they don't come together into a coherent message for today's girls-or their mothers.
This year, social media was collectively outraged over an interview with the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch who said he didn't want fat kids wearing his brand. A few weeks earlier a CBS Sports blogger was attacked, and later fired, for writing that an Oklahoma City Thunder cheerleader was "too chunky" to be dancing on an NBA court.
The backlash these comments triggered sent a clear message I am happy to support: Women are not 'less than' because they don't fit into a skimpy cheerleader's outfit or poorly made preppy clothes-and if a public figure suggests otherwise, they are branded as loathsome, self-hating jerks.
But click on another set of headlines and a completely different message emerges-around the dreaded 'O' word. The O (obesity) word slides nicely into stories condemning the lack of gym class and recess in public schools, the scourge of sugary drinks in cafeterias, and the endless hours of screen time that have replaced bike rides and baseball games.
Individually, each article has a valid point, but when you look at them together it becomes impossible to craft a rational message for girls on how to live confidently in an image-obsessed world.
Cull through any random collection of articles on what it means to be fat, or thin, or healthy, or bullied because of your weight, and here are the lessons you will learn:
1. People will always judge you for how you look-but they are awful for doing it.
2. The media sets impossibly high ideals for beauty that no girl can expect to meet-but it is how you will be measured for the rest of your life.
3. Self-confidence is a lot more attractive than a 26-inch waist, but no one will tell you that because it's easier to sell weight loss than self-confidence.
4. If you become overweight, you are still beautiful exactly the way you are, but you should try to fix yourself immediately through exercise and expensive diet plans that probably won't work.
5. You will probably never in your whole life look at your naked body in a mirror and think 'yes, this is exactly how I want to look,' but you should keep checking every day just to be sure.
So now the question is, how do I translate these mixed-messages into a coherent life plan for my daughter, who has already come to the conclusion that 'skinny' and 'good' are synonymous, and that her body may not add up.
There is no right answer, no perfect way to raise a girl in a body-obsessed culture, and no way to remove her from its influence. My tiny voice of reason is drowned out in the cacophony of voices telling her to do whatever it takes to be prettier and thinner and more appealing.
I fear the best I can do is tell her I love her for who she is, then teach her how to make healthy choices-for her body and her soul-that will hopefully protect her from the worst this culture has to offer.
It feels like scant offering, but it is all that I can think to give.
Sarah Fister Gale is a Chicago mom and freelance writer.