A few weeks ago I brought home a pineapple from Trader Joe’s. This excited Norah immensely as she likes to eat pineapple and we don’t purchase them often, but additionally she decided that it would be used for play (because heavy, spiky objects lend well to children’s activities). Her game idea was to carry the pineapple over her head and walk circles around the kitchen island while I counted to 100 (fun?). After completing this task the first time, she declared that she was working hard to get strong, a moment that made me feel a little tingle of pride as I do enjoy teaching my children the importance of health and wellness, and I believe a desire to be strong is a positive sign of understanding that importance. After completing the task a second time, she said I need keep doing this so I don’t get fat.
I grew up a thin girl and did very little to move my body or mind my habits. I distinctly recall coming home from high school during my freshman year and plopping on the couch with a whole Publix cheesecake to mindlessly fork through while watching Sweet Valley High or some other terrible TV program before ultimately passing out. The picture of health I was! No one was telling me to live otherwise and I was lucky enough to have some sort of freakish metabolism that allowed for this and other similar behaviors such as consuming a McDonald’s bucket of fries by myself, so I spent zero time fussing about weight or pant size. I had plenty of other things to be depressed about as a teenager like the simple fact that I was a teenager.
And then something changed.
Not in my metabolism, but more so in my mentality. I don’t recall what the exact turning point was, but during my senior year of high school I developed an interest in the idea of preventing weight gain. It’s absurd that my size 0/2 figure would bring about even the notion that I need be afraid of such things, but I was. I believe it simply became a larger part of the conversation that was being had by my peers and so, as I often did at that age, I adopted their line of thinking and decided that I too needed to dread getting fat. During the summer before college, I began taking things to a new level with days where my entire diet consisted of a Carnation Instant Breakfast, a can of pineapple, and an embarrassing quantity of whatever my alcoholic beverage of choice happened to be once I got off work and “went out.” I wouldn’t say I had an eating disorder for other days still came where I gorged on Miami Subs curly fries or the like, but I was definitely learning some new tricks, one of which included dropping diet pills that were most likely stolen from GNC by one of my besties. We were, like, so good at life.
Enter college and the infamous freshman fifteen, and I simply couldn’t bear the idea of being bigger, so I started counting calories and exercising. With zero nutritional knowledge I determined that 1,000 was an appropriate number and monitored my mostly ramen and canned tuna based diet to be sure I wasn’t exceeding that very well researched (lies) number. New friends came along and with them new ways of fighting the good fight against fat like purging, Xenadrine, and good old fashioned abstinence—“all I’ve had today is like five cheeze-its.” The worst of it is that every last one of us was so fucking tiny and hadn’t a thing to worry about, yet we believed firmly otherwise and so abused our bodies.
I wish I could say that as I’ve grown up I’ve gotten entirely over my obsession with weight, but I’d be lying if I did. I no longer pop pills or purge or play games like how long can I subsist on a handful of grapes, but I still pay attention to the scale and a good bit of my interest in exercise is based on the calorie burn it affords. Being healthy plays a much larger role at this point in my life, but vanity remains and I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally free of anxiety surrounding weight gain. Sadly, there are still days when my feelings of dissatisfaction with my body affect my mood to the degree that I’m an asshole to my husband and kids, and I struggle to feel happy about anything. This is not okay.
And then there’s my sweet little girl, just about to turn six, telling me that she’s carrying around a pineapple so she doesn’t get fat. Have I failed already to protect her from such thinking? Pete and I work very hard to never comment on our bodies in front of the kids, and to avoid any negative language around the subject of weight, figure, or appearance. We focus on making healthy choices and taking care of ourselves to feel good, have more energy, and help our bodies function in their best way possible. But what we teach at home is only ever a part of the story, and the world out there is full of information and ideas that infiltrate their little minds, and build their perceptions and beliefs.
I have no interest in sheltering my children. They deserve to learn and explore and experience as they grow into the people they will become, and I hope they question everything along the way. But I can’t help but want to protect them from pain, and not just the physical kind which is a whole other pile of neuroses for me, but the kind that comes from struggling to love and accept yourself.
I reacted a bit too sternly when Norah made that declaration a few weeks ago in our kitchen, snapping quickly with “why did you say that?!” Nearly as quickly, I realized that making such a fuss about it was working against my efforts to move focus away from the subject, and so I backed off. More calmly I offered that she needn’t worry about such things, and that what was important was that she loved and cared for her body by nourishing and moving it, and by appreciating its beauty and ability. I don’t pretend to think that Norah can grow through life successfully avoiding body image issues altogether, but I do believe her path can be a bit better than mine.
So how do we parents create an environment for our children that fosters a positive body image and self-acceptance? And how do we continue to teach and guide them throughout life, offering security in the form of support as they grow into adults and perhaps parents as well? For starters, we could all stand to do a better job at loving ourselves. Lead by example; a simple, powerful phrase that I believe in strongly. I maaaaay not always be super awesome at executing on it—like when I’m really angry and yell and cuss and act like a giant jerk—but I never forget the importance and persistently try to be the best role model possible for Norah and Crosby.
In matters of body image, I make a concerted effort to reveal no sign of my own insecurities surrounding my appearance and figure, but kids are remarkably smart and intuitive, and I believe mine will develop their own self-love more readily if what they feel emanating from me is honest and real. And it goes beyond just embracing and appreciating our physical manifestation to loving our whole selves inside and out in a way that shines, a way that the littles of our lives can feel and absorb and adopt. This is something I work on endlessly, and I know the work will never be done, but if even a piece of what I’m able to forge for me is somehow imparted to my children, I will consider the work well worth it and mark one in the win column.
Lying on the bed with Norah two nights ago and enjoying some pre-sleep snuggles, I stroked her hair as I often do and simply said “I love you so much.” “I love you too mommy,” she replied, “and I love myself. Sometimes I don’t like myself though. Like when I’m mean to Crosby. Usually I can’t control it, it just comes out of my body somehow. But I love myself.”