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My Plan for Teaching My Daughter to Have Body Confidence

meandelsaTo what lengths would we go to protect our daughters from the self-loathing and body image issues that we have dealt with in our lives? Would we remove the word “fat” from our vocabulary? Avoid scales? Catch ourselves from “body checking” our hips to make sure they haven’t gotten bigger in the past 30 minutes? Never comment on our daughters’ figures, lest we say the wrong thing?

Would we gain 10 pounds?

Over at XO Jane, Jacqueline Burt writes that that — gaining 10 pounds, silently and gracefully — is exactly what she would to do protect her 12-year-old daughter from hating her body.

Ms. Burt writes compellingly that her own mother’s comments and efforts to keep her from going through that “awkward chubby phase” as an adolescent are the reason she developed the eating disorder that still plagues her and causes her much anxiety. The restraint she exercises in trying to break the cycle and let her daughter learn to love her body the way that it is, is admirable. Ms. Burt’s piece is beautiful and powerful — and opens the door to a great conversation that I feel needs to be continued.

Ms. Burt says she has tried to remove all traces of “sustenance-related self-loathing” from her speech and actions, thinking, perhaps, that keeping her mouth shut will prevent those messages from getting to her daughter’s ears. But I wonder if she has also engaged in conversation about the images her daughter is bombarded with as she walks through stores or watches TV. Have they discussed why it is better to choose a salad over a bag of potato chips — and mentioned reasons that have nothing to do with waist sizes and everything to do with feeding your body healthy food so that it functions well for years to come? I have my doubts that the solution to developing a healthy body image is simply silence on the subject of bodies, and fat and food.

I commend and admire Ms. Burt’s ability to let her body gain the 10 pounds that it needs to be healthy, but I think there is room for another conversation here about accepting our bodies for what they are now and also trying to help them be the best they can be. There’s more at stake than a pre-teen girl feeling good about the body she has; if we don’t talk to our daughters about making healthy choices (salads over potato chips), we’re doing them a disservice. But if we don’t talk to them about taking charge and changing things don’t like about themselves, then we’re disempowering, even crippling, them.

Now, I relate to Ms. Burt’s struggle on many levels. While I don’t think I have an eating disorder, it is something that I consciously and continuously fight. And while the instances of my mother making direct comments about my weight were few and far between, the general feeling in the home was such that New Year’s resolutions from the time I was a pre-teen included pacts between my sisters and I to eat less, workout more, and lose weight — even though we were not even a little bit outside of the “healthy” zones for our heights and were still growing. In fact, I come from a line of women who were very aware of their weight and health. Some of them kept perspective on the issue and lived normal lives to the end, while others did not. (It sounds as though Ms. Burt may have a genetic heritage of body issues as well.)

I also have three kids (two sons and a daughter) whom I am trying to teach healthy habits and body confidence to — and part of my strategy to this point has been similar to Ms. Burt’s: I don’t say anything bad about my body in front of them. I eat what I like to eat and don’t talk about being on a diet or needing to workout to maintain my figure. When I talk about food, it’s usually something about the good things that broccoli does for our bodies and why we only have sweets a couple of times a week. And while my daughter, at 17 months, is still a decade or so away from being aware of thigh gaps and belly rolls (I hope), this issue has been on my mind since well before she was conceived: how can I protect her from hating her body?

I obviously don’t have the answers — yet. But I do have a plan. And that is to teach her that her body is not the enemy. It is not a mystery, not a curse. Her body is hers to take care of, to own and to nurture. She needs to know that there are things she can do to make it the best it can be, and to function at its highest level. She can — and should — do those things. And if she does them keeps herself healthy and able then there’s no reason to look at herself with anything but love.

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