“I pity,” my daughter said. “Mommy! I pit-ty.” I smiled over my shoulder — I was in the middle of doing dishes — and yelled back, “aw, honey. You are pretty! So very pretty.” She laughed, pointed to herself, and asked “I pit-ty?” As I looked at her on the floor, laughing and smiling and feeling so damn self-confident, I wondered what I was doing. What was I doing with my hands covered in soap and my eyes turned down in the sink? I turned off the water, dried my palms on my pants, scooped her up and said “Amelia, you are beautiful! Absolutely gorgeous!” I continued, “your smile. Your curly hair. Your cute little toes. Your belly,” I tickled her. “Everything about you is pretty.”
She laughed and laughed and laughed.
As a mother, I hope she will feel “pit-ty” and pretty and beautiful forever. I can’t help but dream that her confidence will alway soar. It's why I'm going to talk to my daughter about her body, and her body image, because I know the road ahead. I know what's coming, and I want her to be armed with the knowledge to fight back against it.
When I was my daughter's age, I was carefree too. I didn’t care what others thought. I danced wildly and sang loudly. I wore mismatched socks and sideways ponytails. And I never concerned myself with that damn scale. It was just something I had to step on at the doctor’s office, just another thing standing between me, a sticker, and a red lollipop.
My physical insecurities taint almost every happy memory I have: my graduation, my two-and-half year engagement, my wedding day.
But sometime between elementary school and high school, all that changed. Sometime between my 11 birthday and my 12, that all changed, after I gave up Barbie dolls but before I bought my first training bra, everything looked different.
Before long, I was self-conscious, self-critical, and I'd grown to hate my body. I hated each and every thing about my it. I started wearing oversized shirts and baggy jeans when I was 13. I started researching anorexia and bulimia when I was 14 or 15, and I spent countless hours reading about foods and “diets” and the various ways one could lose weight. I learned how to say I wasn’t hungry, even when I was. I began eating alone.
By the time I started counting calories, I was already bony-knee deep in what doctors would later call EDNOS (an eating disorder, not otherwise specified) and the yet-to-be-named-or-defined body dysmorphic disorder. This went on for years, not the disease itself, but the disordered thoughts and my distorted self-image. It stayed with me through high school and college. It carried me from my 20s into my 30s, and my physical insecurities taint almost every happy memory I have: my graduation, my two-and-half year engagement, my wedding day. They even tarnished my pregnancy, at least early on.
But it was then, during my pregnancy, something shifted. By time I hit my fourth month, I was happy with my body. I knew every pound I gained would make my baby girl bigger and stronger, and make me bigger and stronger. For the first time in my life, I let go: of societally-imposed expectations and of the voice in my head. I ate when I wanted, I worked out when I could, and I stopped to nap whenever I needed. I pampered myself. I listened to myself. And I loved myself and my body, and I had pregnancy to thank for that.
I want her to know as soon as possible that being different is not just a good thing, it's a great thing. I want her to know that our differences that make us great, special, unique, memorable. I want her to know our differences define us, not who or what we're wearing.
So why bring my daughter’s attention to her body — especially if it isn’t on her mind yet? Why should I tell her about things like Photoshop, public perception, or (more accurately) public misconception? Why should I talk to my daughter about her body image?
Because mirrors lie. The media lies. Our own minds lie. Someday she'll question her worth because of the way her body looks or doesn't look. She'll find fault with herself: her arms will be too skinny or her legs will be too fat. Maybe her chest will be too flat or her bust, too big. She'll compare herself to someone else, think "if only" about any number of things. She'll begin to tell herself what girls and women have been telling themselves for years and years and years: that she's not enough. And I want her to know as soon as possible that being different is not just a good thing, it's a great thing. I want her to know that our differences that make us great, special, unique, memorable. I want her to know our differences define us, not who or what we're wearing. I want her to remember that our shapes make us beautiful, never our sizes. I want her to know that who she is accounts for much more than what she is.
I'll show her legs can do instead of teaching her what they can’t. I'll show her that her body is strong, a vessel she should be proud to own. I'll teach her she is only limited by her own mind.
I want my daughter to know that no matter what happens, I'll always be her mom. I'll always be here to listen, to help, to give a shoulder when she just really needs one. I want her to know that she can come to me, no matter what time or day or year or issue she has, because I'll listen, and I'll help, and I'll love her all the same.
I won't talk about diets or perfection, and I'll be careful not to let words like "fat" or "ugly" or "weight loss" take root in our home. Instead, I'll focus on living a whole life, buying whole foods foods, cooking healthy meals. I'll show her legs can do instead of teaching her what they can’t. I'll show her that her body is strong, a vessel she should be proud to own. I'll teach her she is only limited by her own mind.
And while we bake and laugh and eat and run, I'll teach her how her body works — and I mean everything, from her head all the way down to her breasts and vagina. I will teach her what it means to be healthy and, most importantly, happy. I'll take her on long walks, climb trees in the park, do pull-ups on the playground, and show her just how beautiful strong and independent women can be. (This also means I'll probably rearrange the living room myself next Saturday, just to show her women can move things too.)
I know body image is a hard conversation to have with anyone at any age, but that doesn't mean I'm going to shy away from having it. I want to talk to my daughter about body image because I want her to know to the truth: She's in charge. I want her to feel empowered and in control and proud of her body. I don't want her to be left alone to "figure it out on her own." So we'll figure it out together. We'll be a team. And no matter what, my girl will know she's not alone.