Note: Spoilers for ‘This Is Us’ ahead.
Yesterday, I discovered a company selling stretch mark cream for teenagers. Yes, you read that right. Stretch mark cream for teenagers.
Immediately, I was brought back to 1996. I had just started middle school, and instantly, I gained 10 extra pounds, wider hips, and — you guessed it — stretch marks. Along with so many other parts of me, I would spend decades painfully trying to erase these bodily “flaws,” keep myself at the tiniest possible size I could, and maintain an appearance that was acceptable to the outside world.
Why? Because I was taught at a very young age that my body was, and always would be, a problem that needed fixing.
And last week’s heartbreaking episode of This is Us helped me realize why I spent so many years in pain.
If you’re a fan of the show, you know all about Chrissy Metz’s character, Kate. As one of the leads in the series, Kate has shown audiences her lifelong journey to change the body she’s spent years struggling to love. We see Kate at different stages in her life, and in doing so, we witness the origins of living in a home where her mom constantly pushed diet foods on her and schoolmates who regularly taunted her for being heavier than they were. We also see the one loving constant in Kate’s childhood — her persistently supportive dad, Jack.
In the latest episode, a teenage Kate discovers she’s made it to the final round of consideration for the vocal program at Berklee College of Music, her dream school. She needs to record one more audition piece and her dad urges her to videotape herself singing, so admissions can see all her talent and beauty.
Cripplingly self-conscious about her appearance and weight, Kate is adamantly against the idea. But when she records her song, Jack videotapes her anyway, hoping she’ll see herself the way he sees her. Kate loses her temper at her dad, yelling at him to stop telling her how beautiful she is, because no one else sees her that way and it just hurts her more when he says it.
But later, she secretly watches the tape and finally sees herself the loving way her father always has.
“Don’t ever stop. Don’t stop trying to make me see myself the way you see me,” Kate pleads with her dad.
While watching this moment, I found myself crying so hard that I couldn’t stop choking back the tears. Tearing up is a common occurrence for me (and anyone with a soul) when I watch This is Us, but these emotions were about something altogether different.
I cried for all the years I spent tearing my body down. I cried for every magazine with images that threw me into disordered eating at the innocent age of 12. I cried for every single kid who grows up believing they are only worthy of love if they keep themselves thin, attractive, and appealing to others. I even cried for all the parents who criticize their own bodies in front of their kids, or worse, criticize their children’s bodies.
But the most surprising emotion I felt was relief. Because birthing my daughter back in 2015 led to a 50 pound weight gain that changed my life. My transformation allowed me to finally see myself the way Jack has always seen his daughter.
Despite physically becoming everything I had feared as a young person, I saw my heavier body with complete love and acceptance. And now, I can confidently say that I have become someone my kids can expect to always love them as they are, instead of how the world tells them to be.
I wonder how our society would change if we stopped collectively showing our children that bodies need to be fixed and changed. I wonder what kind of self-loving humans our kids would grow into if they had ongoing support to be exactly who they are. The fact of the matter is, kids and teens constantly struggle to fit in with their peers and society at large. Our media bombards them with images and messages telling them to lose weight and fix their perceived “flaws” to meet some impossible standard of beauty.
And as parents, this means we need to step up our game.
If you aren’t already, please consider becoming a “Jack” for your kids. Please actively choose to remind them that while the world may tear them down, you see them the way they truly are — completely worthy of love and belonging. We can’t always prevent our children from being exposed to hateful imagery, but we do have the power to provide a safe harbor every time they come home to us.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself what I know now — that nothing about my body was, or ever will be, a flaw. That things like stretch marks are a totally natural part of me. And that the only thing I needed to lose at 12 years old was the mentality that I was unlovable in the body I had.