I am a woman who has struggled to accept her body since being a preteen and is subsequently recovering from an eating disorder.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve worried about how my relationship with my body could impact my daughters. My biggest fear is the day one of my daughters tells me she doesn’t like her body.
That day came so much sooner than expected.
We were sitting down to dinner, like any other Tuesday, and nonchalantly the words rolled off my daughter’s tongue.
Mom, I hate my legs.
She didn’t pose it as a question. There was no hesitation as she voiced her opinion. At 8-going on 9-years old, my daughter declared she hated her body.
What do you say to that?
I can tell you until I’m blue in the face how many things I wish my mom would have done differently when discussing body image.
Maybe, like… actually holding space for discussion.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the woman with my whole heart and everything she provided for me and our family. But the conversations on certain topics have always been off-limits, like mental health, body image, or therapy.
Even now, as a grown 30-something-year-old woman, I have no idea how I’d start a conversation about this with her.
So what do I say? How do I have a conversation with my daughter, a child, about already disliking her body? I don’t want to brush it under the rug, but I also don’t want her to see the look of sheer terror in my eyes and panic in my soul as I remember my childhood.
I went to my first Weight Watchers (WW) meeting sometime in the early 2000s with my Mom and Dad. I was somewhere in my preteens and already unhappy with the way my figure looked.
Five days out of the week when I donned the most ridiculous school uniform, all I could think about was how pudgy I was. I found myself constantly fidgeting, trying to smooth out my midsection.
A polo tucked into a knee length plaid skirt wasn’t particularly flattering on anyone. But the real uniform I was so desperate to wear included stick straight legs, a flat stomach, and a waif like presence.
Ah yes. Frail. Feminine. With a hint of delicate collar bones.
I never had much of a conversation with my Mom, about how I felt about my body. Even so, there was no doubt in my mind about how she felt about hers.
There were always cases upon cases of Slim-Fast in the house (a meal replacement shake). I would see her mixing strange concoctions of cottage cheese and grapes for breakfast, carefully sliding a piece of cardboard up and down to calculate her points total. [Points are calculated by a mix of macronutrients and calories].
She never explicitly said I am fat, and that’s why I am trying to lose weight, but even as young as 12, I understood the message loud and clear.
Like that time, I was shopping for an 8th-grade graduation dress. Nothing in the juniors department fit like it was supposed to. Instead of discussing how, regardless of what size I wore, I was still worthy of respect, love, and feeling fantastic at graduation, a comment was made about my shape.
“Sorry, kid. Looks like you got the [insert my mother’s maiden name] shape.”
The words we use matter
There are many phrases that have stuck with me from childhood.
“Exercise, so you don’t grow an extra size.”
“Just because they make it in your size, doesn’t mean you should wear it.”
“Pain is beauty.”
They are just words, but I carried their unspoken meaning with me through the rest of my adult life.
For years I hated exercising. It was a punishment meant to beat my curvy figure into slim submission. If I ran fast, danced longer, and stretched more I would out-exercise the body I was genetically predetermined to have.
A curvy body in the early 2000s was a fashion faux-pas.
My freshman year of high school after leaving my Catholic school uniform behind, I wore all the skirts and the heels and the halter tops. Every day I dressed as if I was ready to hit the runway at a moment’s notice.
I loved it. I loved the freedom of self-expression I never had before. Until the day I heard a critique of a plus-sized woman regarding what she shouldn’t be wearing.
Just because they made it in her [plus] size didn’t mean her body should be adorned in that fashion.
Just because she felt comfortable expressing herself through her choice of clothing, didn’t mean society would feel comfortable seeing her plus-sized body in clothing intended for a straight-sized woman.
So what did that mean for me? Although no one specifically [to that point] had told me I was fat, I still heard loud and clear all the unspoken words.
“I don’t know about that style. Maybe pick something more flattering.”
You are too big and too fat. Lose weight, be smaller, and then try again.
I spent the next 18 years dressing my body with no consideration for my own comfort or expression. I dressed my body in a way that wouldn’t attract any criticism.
Rewriting the Narrative
Two daughters, and 18 years later, I’ve been through it all. I spent the rest of my teenage years and early 20’s battling OSFED and atypical anorexia while being in a relationship with a fat-phobic partner.
In 2012 and 2014, I became a mother to two beautiful little girls. While I love being a girl mom, I’m equally terrified that my struggle with body image and food will be passed onto them.
In a world where society has a lot of unlearning to do around body-image, and body-acceptance still more theory than actual practice, I can only do what is within my control to help my daughter’s build healthy relationships with their bodies.
When I am dressing my body, I don’t talk about how I wish I was thinner or smaller — I talk about how cute or fun my outfit is.
We play together, which sometimes involves exercise, but it’s never a punishment. It is something we enjoy that makes our bodies feel strong.
In our home, we talk about how we’re feeling and why we feel that way. When my daughter said she thought her legs were too big, I didn’t sweep her concern under the rug.
I asked her why she felt that way, acknowledged her feelings, and continued to explain that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes.
No one body is better than another because of how it looks. More importantly, the way your body looks does not define who you are as a person.
For more conversations on rewriting the narrative around body image —
From ‘Fat Amy’ to ‘Fit Amy’
Once again, society is focusing on all the wrong things about Rebel Wilson’s weight-loss journey