Thursday, July 7, 2011

Learning to teach body image

Last week, my sister sent me this article: How to Talk to Little Girls. I think you should read it.

Some good points, huh? In the article, Lisa Bloom claims that adults tend to talk to little girls in terms of how they look or what they wear. This is not a great start in a world where more and more we value appearance over quality of person, where how thin you are seems more important than how kind or intelligent you are.

She points out that when she sees an adorable little girl, her first instinct is to complement her hair, dress, smile, whatever. I totally do this. I am going to try to stop.

(not stop making sincere complements, mind you, just stop using a comment about appearance as my default greeting)

Now that we have a baby girl, I am realizing I have a new responsibility to teach body image. I am also realizing that apparently I am old and crotchety, and nowadays high school girls routinely go out without any clothes. Those are not shorts! Those are panties! Where are your parents!?

Anyway, ahem. Back to my daughter.

How can I teach her to love her body, even if it turns out she has one like mine that was taller and thicker than the popular girls'? How can I keep her from looking at a skeletal fashion model or a skinny high-schooler in short shorts and thinking that is what all women are supposed to look like? How can I teach her that what actually matters is the kind of person you are, when so often appearance is rewarded over goodness?

I think my only chance in having some success here is to be a good role model. I have come a long way with my body issues, realizing a few years ago that I was totally buying in to this idea of appearance (especially thin-ness) over any other quality and it really pissed me off. I looked at myself and said hey! I just ran a half-marathon! And it was awesome!

And I'm supposed to feel badly about myself because my pants size has two digits!? NO WAY.
I refuse.

Around that time, I stopped weighing myself and stopped dieting. My life has been much better since. I eat a lot of vegetables and I exercise a lot, and happily things have been reasonably stable since then. I have had two babies and made it back to my pre-baby pants. Which are in a size that has two digits, and that is fine with me.

My anger at the weight-loss culture has allowed me to work on eating healthy food and exercising in the frame of how it makes me feel, instead of focusing only on thinness. Because this focus on thinness pisses me off. I am very happy I have been able to shift my mentality in this way, because for me, dieting was a big problem. I would become obsessed with food and what I could or could not eat and drop a bunch of weight. Then I would binge eat and feel awful. I was hungry all the time. Eventually I'd get burned out about dieting and the weight would come back, and I'd feel bad again. I was spending a whole lot of energy thinking about how my body looked, and was never really happy with it.

This is basically the exact opposite of what I want for my daughter. I hope that I have come far enough that I can show her an example of someone who eats (the right amount of) healthy food and exercises because it makes me feel good. I want to show her that I love my body because of the remarkable things it can do. We can go for a walk in the woods! I can play volleyball! I can GROW AND GIVE BIRTH TO AND FEED TWO ACTUAL LIVE HUMANS!!

And if I'm not totally at peace with my body yet because of the spider veins on my thighs or my not-exactly-perfectly toned triceps, you had better believe I am going to fake it. Where is my daughter going to learn to worry about whether or not a dress makes her look fat? It is not going to be from me. I hope to teach her to find clothes that she likes and that fit and that are fun, because clothes can be lots of fun. I hope I can be a reasonable role model for this, because I'm sure she will be hearing a different message from the media, and probably from her friends.


  1. I was thinking about this the other day, because my son loves to eat, and everyone thinks it's cute and funny and encourages it. In the back of mind, I was thinking, if I had a girl, would people have the same attitude about her eating? Personally, the time in my life when my body image changed the most, was during pregnancy. It was amazing to be pregnant and healthy and worry about someone else, not your self image and society's perceptions. I also read an article the other day, that said that over 50% of women with eating disorders have female role models (primarily mother's) who have issues with food. I think a big component of eating and food, is family mealtimes and the joining of people around food, and like you said, enjoying it and being healthy.

  2. I totally agree with everything that has been said so far. Even when I was 25lbs thinner, I never had the kind of bod that attracts attention - short waisted, small boobs, chunky waistline, etc. But I never had an eating problem, probably because my mother, despite mher many faults, never said anything or acted weird about food. I have been thinking about this a lot too. The book "Child of Mine" was instrumental in helping me think about teaching my daughters healthy eating habits which hopefully will become ingrained and automatic. I think it will also be helpful, when they get older, to show how photographs are altered to produce impossible body shapes, and how many people in the public eye actually look unhealthy and skeletal (my most recent favorite: Kate Middleton, who looks like she needs a meal or too). Will that neutralize the messages we're getting from the media (which points out which stars are "fat") and government (which is telling us we're all too fat)? Beats me.