When I found out I was pregnant , and especially after I learned I was having a girl, I started planning how I would and wouldn’t talk to my child about food. I wanted to set an example for her that I never had.
As a child, I was surrounded by family members on diets. They talked about all the things they “shouldn’t” eat right before they stuffed them in their mouths. Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by commercials for sugary cereals and candy. My high school served baskets of fries and slices of pizza, but a good share of the girls forewent any lunch at all. I remember mothers warning their daughters not to get fat — telling them they’d better watch what they ate, or they wouldn’t be wearing a size two for long.
These were the behaviors I looked to when I formed my own relationship with food.
I spent my childhood overweight. I was embarrassed to wear shorts and swimsuits, to be the only “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” fairy whose dress wasn’t one-size-fits-all. Then, I spent my late teens and early 20s in a nose-dive toward anorexia. Food became a forbidden pleasure and a cursed temptation.
I was consumed with thoughts about food and calories, what I “should” eat. Only half a serving of oatmeal with water, a banana, black coffee . If I sweetened anything I’d have to eat even less later. Avocado terrified me because a friend referred to it as “nature’s butter.” Rice, noodles and potatoes were bad, and a slice of birthday cake handed to me at a party would send me into a panic.
I spiraled into binge-eating and binge-exercising. I felt on-edge all the time. I didn’t want to eat around people, and I didn’t want to keep any food in my cupboards for fear I would consume it all in one go.
It took years of therapy and relearning old patterns to forge a positive relationship with food, one in which I wasn’t afraid of it or using it as a numbing agent, or swinging back and forth between the two. Through many years of counseling, I finally stopped talking about what I “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. I stopped labeling food as “bad” or “good,” and I stopped beating myself up for indulging. I’d finally learned to eat mindfully.
This is the relationship I want my daughter to have with food — I want her to feel free to eat without guilt.
When she’s considering what foods to choose for herself, the only things I want her to think about are: Would you like to try this new food? How will that make your body feel? Ask your body if you’re still hungry.
I’ll always speak encouragingly of her body and its capabilities. I’ll tell her, (and I already do, during tummy time) “You’re working hard and getting strong! Keep practicing like that and your body will get you where you want to go!” When we play outside, I’ll let her be active in whatever way makes her happiest.
But I know that it’s not enough to simply affirm my daughter’s body. I know I need to be kinder to myself as well.
This first occurred to me during a prenatal yoga class. At six months pregnant, I’d already hatched a plan for parenting a mindful eater and I felt confident. Then, during class, the instructor talked about instilling a positive body image in her daughters. To do that — this was the part I needed to hear — she said she’s careful how she speaks about her own body in front of them.
Woah. While I was sure I’d have no problem telling my daughter how wonderful her body was, I still had trouble talking about my own. I’m in recovery, but there are still days when I still hear negative statements come out of my own mouth.
I feel fat.
Should I really be eating this?
Do I look okay?
These sentiments are exactly what I don’t want to model for my daughter.
I want my daughter to see me love not only her, but also myself. I want her to hear me talk about food and my body in ways that celebrate the important roles they play.
So even though at 3 months she may be too young to fully grasp what she sees and hears, I model the healthy relationship with food and my body that I hope she’ll adopt one day.
I’ve started talking about how clothes make me feel in terms of confidence and comfort instead of fit. I praise my body for what it helps me accomplish rather than how it looks.
I never refer to any food as “bad,” or say I shouldn’t eat it. When planning our meals, dessert is not off-limits but rather considered as part of the whole. And I don’t comment on what other people are eating or their size.
I want my daughter to see her mother prepare food that is mostly fresh and sometimes fast. To see me sit down at the table and focus on the company and conversation as much as on the food. To see me enjoy broccoli and cake, butter and watermelon, fish and bread.
My hope for my daughter is that she is able to maintain a relationship with food and her body that makes her feel free in a way many women haven’t felt in centuries. For my part, I will lead by example, eating mindfully and showing her what it looks like when you love yourself.