When I was eight months pregnant with my second child and still working out daily, I asked my doctor if there was anything I should be concerned about while exercising “with child” (even though it was a little late in the game to be asking such a question).
My doctor gave my big belly the once over and said, “Please. I wish more women worked out this late into pregnancy. I wish all of my patients exercised. It would make my job so much easier.”
I took this as a pat on the back that I was doing something right and left her office to go teach my five o’clock fitness class to a bunch of high energy 19-year-olds at the nearby university. When I came home that night, I wanted to try out a few new moves I thought up during class. I was down on the floor with my ankle and hand weights, going through the motions, when my daughter, who was 3 at the time, walked into my bedroom. She stared at me, quietly sucking her thumb, as I lunged and stabbed the air with my arms and legs.
“What are you doing, Mommy?” she eventually asked. “I’m exercising, honey!” I said, trying not to feel like an idiot for contorting my pregnant body into weird pretzel like configurations — with weights.
That’s pretty much how it goes in our house. I’m not pregnant anymore, but I am frequently exercising. I’m always dressed in workout clothes. The only time I really leave the house is to go teach up to five fitness classes a week, something I’ve done as a hobby and to earn extra “walking around money” for the past seven years. On the days I don’t leave the house to teach, June and Katie typically see me down on the floor in my shorts and exercise bra panting and sweating before one of my many exercise DVDs (crazy hard new favorite: Tonique Addicted to Movement by Sylwia Wiesenberg).
As they watch me, wide-eyed and stony faced, I’ve often wondered if all this exercise exposure is truly healthy or whether I’m inadvertently broadcasting the message that toned glutes and sinewy biceps count among a woman’s most important attributes.
Make no mistake, I’m not implying there is anything wrong with wanting to look good. I like being toned. I like being able to wear shorts and miniskirts without cellulite dimpling the backs of my legs. I prefer being slender. But at some point, the motives behind my exercise fixation become fuzzy. Am I working out because I want to feel great or to achieve so-called physical perfection? It’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
What I don’t want is my four year old to come to me pinching her beautiful round baby belly, asking, “Mommy, am I fat?” That just happened to a friend of mine concerning his own daughter, who happens to be among June’s closest friends. Somewhere along the lines, this little girl has already received the message that fat = bad and skinny = good. She, like June, is four. Scary.
I’ve witnessed how negative physical awareness can metastasize as children get older, through a small percentage of the college girls who take my class: Young women hollowed out, both physically and spiritually, from borderline anorexia, yet pushing to complete just one more rep. It makes me sad to see these women pin all their hopes and dreams on how they look – only to end up diminishing themselves in the process.
So I’ve had to really look at why I exercise as much as I do because I know my daughters, particularly in these formative years, will take a lot of body image clues directly from me. I don’t want to inadvertently feed them the brain-draining body hang ups that I see wear down some of my students.
I exercise first and foremost because it’s something I’ve always done, like brushing my teeth. I don’t feel right without it. I like that it’s not writing. I like that working out — at least as of this blog post — doesn’t involve sitting on my butt in front of a computer alone. Exercise makes me think better. It makes me more creative. I write more better after a sweat session (see? I need to work out). It’s another outlet for creativity: I love putting together my own playlists for classes, sourcing new moves, trying out new things for students. It’s a lot of fun for me. And yes, I like to look good in my jeans.
My motives, at least as far as I can tell, fall within the healthy/normal zone. I don’t work out because I’m obsessed by the digit on my clothing labels nor am I deluded enough to think my physical appearance makes me a “better,” more fulfilled person (I’m too old for such illusions). My day isn’t ruined if I wake up feeling puffy, it just means I need to lay off the salt and wine for awhile. I never diet because I know diets don’t work. I eat fatty foods all the time — “good” fatty foods, that is (cheese, nuts, eggs, even bacon).
So I like to think I’m not in danger of passing on detrimental body image hang ups to my girls. That said, here are a couple things I do to broadcast a healthy body image, given that my daughters all too frequently catch me mid-butt thrust:
1. I frame fitness around health, not appearance.
June is already hardwired to want to “look beautiful,” so I’m careful not to talk about exercise from that angle. I never use disparaging fat talk, such as phrases like “fat butt,” “thunder thighs,” etc., nor do I critique the bodies of others (not something I’d ever do anyway). In fact, I try not to use words like “fat” or “skinny” at all when talking about the body. When June asks me why I’m working out, I always say “because Mommy wants to be strong and healthy.”
2. I encourage her to exercise with me.
I don’t make her get down on the floor and do crunches (I’m not that hardcore) but we do things like run to the end of the driveway, race around the house, and do jumping jacks together. I want her to see fitness as a normal and fun part of daily life — something enjoyable we can do together.
3. I talk about how great I feel afterward.
This way, she interprets the body/mind connection. It reinforces the idea that exercise isn’t about punishing yourself into a smaller size but about improving qualities you can’t readily see: better mood, enhanced creativity, sharper focus, and a more playful attitude.
Photo credit: Jessie Knadler