“I look fat in this,” she said. My first reaction was to reassure her. You’re not fat. Look at you! So thin! You’ve always been thin. “I have?” she asked, shyly, smiling a secret inner smile, looking up at me with her big golden brown eyes. Yes, you have. Aren’t you the thinnest in your class?
Crisis averted, for the moment. She’s ten and she shouldn’t be thinking of being fat. She shouldn’t compare herself to others. She should rest in the knowledge of her own beauty, perfect as she is, because she is who she is.
And then it hit me. I had said the wrong thing. I was reacting to my own body image demons, the ones that have plagued me since the fourth grade and I caught a side view of myself in a window, belly out and breathing naturally, and I vowed to hold that belly in to avoid looking fat. I’ve done it ever since. Only in pregnancy did those muscles relax. And I had nothing to worry about — old photos reveal a stick-thin fourth grader.
What I wish I had said was: You’re beautiful. You’re perfect as you are. I love you because you are you.
But my daughter isn’t the only one worrying about fat and body image. It has saturated our culture. California teen girls are having bariatric surgery in alarming numbers (so goes California, so probably goes the nation). We are obsessed with appearance. Retailers and advertisers routinely alter the appearance of already rail-thin models to render them impossibly thin, a degree of thinness that we mere mortals could not possibly aspire to.
What do we do with this? We can’t possibly shield our daughters from the constant onslaught of body-image messages. We can show them the Dove Evolution video a zillion times, but there are twenty zillion more messages out there that say the opposite.
I decided that with my daughter, there are four things I can do:
1) Make sure she understands the changes taking place in her body. There is nothing she can do to stop them. She might feel large and ungainly for a while, but only relative to the little-kid body she is accustomed to. Now she is growing into the body of the woman she will be for the rest of her life, and to refuse that now will only bring her years of grief. Embracing it will bring her the power that resides within it, and help her feel like a whole and complete person.
2) Share my experiences with body image. No one told me the things I just said above, so at 25 I anorexia-bulemia’d myself down to 93 pounds (I’m 5′7″) — and I thought I was finally beautiful. The years since have been a struggle, until very recently when I began to embrace and love my body. It took a bout with cancer to get there.
3) Make sure she knows about healthy living and caring for her body from the inside. We had deep discussions about nutrition, and I’m teaching her to cook so that she can control healthy choices for herself rather than depend on others to do it for her. And now that she has friends in her neighborhood, she has someone besides her very busy older brother to play with, be outside with, and run around with, which will get her off the couch and using her long limbs more.
4) Help her feel the beauty and richness of all her gifts — especially the inner ones. She loves writing, so I’m encouraging her to use that love and her talent in a way that makes her happy. Pleasing herself through her work (rather than trying to please someone else) will give her that inner glow of satisfaction and self-worth that replaces any amount of makeup and trendy clothes to create real beauty.
So here’s a question for you, and this isn’t limited to the parents of daughters, either — our sons have just as much to contend with about image and identity. Is this an issue for you? What have you done to help your children rest in the knowingness of their own inner perfection? Are you still facing challenges? What has worked and what hasn’t?
Photo: Flickr, inneedofhelp08