When the sonographer told me I was having a girl, I was stunned. How could I, and the dozens of strangers who had stopped to comment, been so wrong about the size and shape of my baby bump? But a girl it was, an incomparable gift, now three years old and whose feminine identity I am tasked with molding.
To me, one of the most important aspects of this molding is promoting a healthy body image. Through thinking and muddling and talking with friends, I’ve settled on three main ways I’m going to do that. I’m sure when she’s 16, M will let me know where I got it wrong.
1 | Ditching the “us versus them” rhetoric
I wanted to like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” I did like it at first, in fact. I would play it and dance with M in our underfurnished entryway. The local Y played it at their family festival. It became an anthem of body positivity that I was happy to enjoy. Over and over and over again.
All that came to a crashing halt one day when I selected the wrong version on YouTube and heard Megan cheerfully belt out a line about “skinny bitches.”
I looked it up after I heard that and learned that critics had raised this same point. Is it really positivity if it’s based on attacking other women for their shape? In my house, the answer to that question is no. People, regardless of gender, should not be shamed for their weight.
I’m not saying this because I’m skinny. I need to lose about 25 pounds. I feel a little bit of dread every time swimsuit season rolls around. I don’t try on clothes in stores, preferring just to buy them so that a glass of wine can ease the process.
If a magic spell turned us all into horses, I wouldn’t be prancing along daintily with ribbons streaming from my mane. I’d be pulling the Budweiser truck. When I ran two marathons in six weeks while taking a weight-training class and watching my calories, I wasn’t skinny. Back then, I was a big-legged runner. Now I’m a big-legged ex-runner with a knee injury.
I don’t believe a healthy body image should be separate from a healthy weight. Which brings me to point number two….
2 | Focusing on health
I’m my daughter’s number one female role model, and I frankly don’t want to model this. But since I already know I’m not going to make it on maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and apple cider vinegar for days at a time, change will be a process.
I opted to tell my daughter that I need to lose some weight and explained (briefly! superficially!) that I would be doing that through nutritional choices and increased exercise.
She was thrilled.
“I’ll exercise you, Mom!” She rushed to pull an exercise mat from dusty storage. And while her response made me feel a bit equine, I couldn’t help but be caught up in her enthusiasm. It also gave me a chance to try to impart a bigger life lesson: that seeking improvement and loving yourself are not mutually exclusive. They are, I would argue, two sides of the same coin.
We all need to strive for and be happy with our best possible selves. That best possible self will be different for each of us, and that’s okay. Better than okay. That’s actually a great thing.
In addition to communicating that I am generally happy with myself, but dissatisfied with my weight, I also emphasize that being overweight is not a healthy choice.
Since she’s just a toddler, I didn’t rush to reassure my daughter that she will attract people regardless of her size and shape. But even if she were older, I’m not a fan of the “your body is okay because men are attracted to it” mentality. That’s hardly a barometer. It’s heterosexist and demeaning. If a body type exists, you can find men who are attracted to it.
The strides we’ve made have been too hard-fought for us to give away our own power like this.
3 | Not judging ourselves, not judging others
When I first started writing this, I tried to avoid using any words that could be construed as body-image or weight-related. But I’ve worn the thesaurus thin (okay, that one was on purpose) and just can’t get around “bigger,” “broader,” etc. without resorting to awkward “encompassing” or “extensive.” So please bear with me.
In my attempts to ditch the “us versus them” rhetoric, I focus on the importance of not making yourself feel good by making other people feel bad. When I talk about a nonjudgmental attitude, I talk about being gentle and accepting of ourselves and of the people around us.
At one point, I realized I had put way too much emphasis on the word “fat” as an insulting descriptor. Judging someone’s weight and appearance, regardless of its qualities, is inherently insulting. I learned this when my daughter saw a particularly rotund man and announced in clear tones: “He needs to get to the gym.”
We were on an elevator.
Miraculously, she responded to my silencing glare. After the eternal ride finally ended, I explained that it’s okay for us to talk about me needing to go the gym, because I’m the one who decided that I want to go to the gym. We don’t enforce our choices on others, nor do we judge them for the choices they’ve made. We don’t allow weight to suggest other aspects of a person’s self and character.
One night recently as we cuddled and read bedtime stories, M drowsily murmured, “Mom, I love you and your big tummy.”
And there it was, the moment I knew I was on the right track. I love you AND your big tummy, because you are not the tummy. It does not define you. It does not change my love for you.
But hey, we all know it’s there, right?
What do you think? How do you try to promote a healthy body image in your children?