Hindsight Parenting: Modeling a Positive Body Image
Modeling Self Confidence
“Sing silly words to the Doc McStuffins CD mommy!” Ila exclaimed. This is often a game that we play in the car to pass the time. So I obliged. I admit that I relish the belly giggles my daughter gets and so it is a challenge for me to make her laugh and the lyrics that I sing can be quite nonsensical. The particular song that was on was Doc singing the virtues of eating a good diet; “Eat good food and your body will thank you. You’re gonna love the way you feeeeel. Eat good food!” But instead I sang, “Eat JUNK FOOD and your belly will be big. You’re not going to like the way you feel. Eat junk food!” And then…..well…then nothing. Just silence. A LOOOONG silence. And then Ila saying, “Turn off the music mommy. Stop singing.” I immediately did what she said out of worry and confusion. There was a little more silence then I looked in the rear view mirror and she was whispering to herself, “But my belly’s big. But my belly’s big. But my belly’s big.”
She pushed down on her stomach hard and pulled the seat belt strap tight to try and flatten it. My heart broke. Into a million pieces…it broke. It happened–her first out loud moment of body hatred–just four years old.
When I was growing up, I was the “chubby” sister. My two younger sisters are stick thin and very tall. I am about 5 foot 2 and have my Grandmother’s build; sturdy–wide hips, large chest, fleshy…Some would call me curvy I suppose. But for me, this body has always been one in which I was ashamed. As a little girl, teenager, even as a young adult the message that I consistently received was that I needed to be thinner, thinner, thinner. For instance, there was this one time when I was about 12…my dad was rubbing my back to help me sleep and he pinched my flesh and said, “You are getting chubby. You don’t want to do that. Boys don’t like girls who are fat.” Needless to say, my requests for back rubs disappeared but my dad’s words didn’t…ever.
Then there was the time that I walked in to find that my mother had left a study clipped from our local newspaper sitting on my bed. I had just graduated college and was so excited to start my career as a teacher. I had rounded up three interviews and my outlook was positive. That is until I read the study. You see the article was one in which it stated that women who were overweight had a much lower chance of landing a job even if an interview was obtained. It didn’t matter that I landed two out of those three jobs and got to choose where I’d be. That didn’t matter. What stayed with me is that fact that I must be LESS THAN, my appearance must be LESS THAN because I kept getting the same message–you. are. fat.
So upon finding out that I was having a daughter and using Hindsight as my guide, I vowed that no matter what my daughter would have a strong positive body image. She would know that it is important to be healthy and that being a size two didn’t necessarily have anything to do with that. And for four years, we have tried hard to instill in Ila that confidence. We avoid words like beautiful and pretty and fat or ugly. We ask her nightly what makes her special and praise her on the hard work she does with the physical therapist and us in order to keep her body strong. I thought we were doing such a good job. One of Ila’s therapist once even said to us, “Nobody is ever going to make this girl feel bad about herself. You have done such a good job helping shape her self esteem!” I thought if we just kept on that track…we’d be good. But then the belly thing happened and I have to tell you that it has turned me a bit sideways. If instilling all this positive “I am special” goodness into Ila didn’t keep her from feeling shame about her body what would? I didn’t realize that it needed to be much more than words.
Don’t get me wrong. It was clear that I shouldn’t have sang about big bellies even if it wasn’t connected to her because it put the idea in her head. And I think that is what is so hard nowadays. How do you keep the ideas of what society thinks is beautiful and not-so-beautiful from effecting them. If one silly song could make her react that way then she wasn’t as prepared or good with herself as I thought. So I reached out last night to the mommies and daddies I know. I asked them what they do to help their children feel fine about who they are and the way they look.
Not surprisingly, the answer that helped me the most came (actually NOT from a parent) but from a friend with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. My friend has a spectacular mother who has most DEFINITELY instilled a strength of character and assurance in her daughter. When told about my dilemma she said:
“I would say that the thing that made the biggest difference isn’t the things that my parents said or the words they used. As a fellow teacher, you know that modeling is the magical word. Yes, we all have our insecurities and there’s always parts of us that we want to improve. My mom is no different. But she was never one to stand in the mirror and pick herself apart or cover herself in baggy clothes to cover her problem areas. She modeled to me how to dress right for my body and accentuate the assets in order to compensate for the areas I don’t feel as confident about. She modeled to me through how she carried herself that looking confident while not always feeling confident is half the battle. She modeled to me that if you feel good about yourself on the inside then it will come through your beauty on the outside. She didn’t just tell me I was beautiful every day but she made me FEEL beautiful everyday.”
And so mommies and daddies, I need to heed the words of my very wise and very good friend and begin to model for my daughter what beauty really is…a confidence in who you are. Alas, I have not done that during the first four years of my daughter’s life. But Hindsight is always reminding me that it is never too late to start something new. So today, I have on a sleeveless shirt. I am sure that that is probably not a biggie to many of you, but for me, covering up has been something I have done all my life…wearing sweaters in 90 degree heat and long skirts. But not today…or tomorrow…or any other day. Starting now, I am going to try and be confident in what I look like while also MODELING a healthy lifestyle for my daughter. It isn’t going to be easy to undo all the hardwiring that was established during the formative years of my life, but my child’s self esteem is on the line and therefore it is a worthwhile mountain climb. Taking a deep breath and opening the door to my bedroom, I stepped out into the living room and my husband did a double take.
“New shirt?” he asked.
I’ll admit the old me was SCREAMING at me “My arms are big! My arms are big!” But Ila’s eyes were on me so I swallowed and told him that it wasn’t. He nodded and told me I looked beautiful. Ila nodded and said, “Yeah, mommy! You are beautiful, but I am beautiful too!”
She certainly is beautiful inside and out, just as your children are beautiful beings. And with a lot of modeling we can help them know that, we can help them be confident in their own particular beauty for years and years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Logan has lived in Glens Falls, NY all her life. By day, she is an educator with 20 years experience, a mom to Aidan and Gannan, her two teenage boys, a new mommy to a beautiful daughter, Ila, and wife to the love of her life, Jeffrey. By night, weekends and any spare time she can find, Logan writes. She loves memoir and also adores writing essays about the challenges of parenthood. This year she started a parenting blog called A Muddled Mother, an honest place where mothers aren’t afraid to speak of the complications and difficulties that we all inevitably experience. Logan has been published in various children’s and parenting magazines including Today’s Motherhood, Eye on Education, Faces, and Appleseed. Logan’s previous column for Hilltown Families, Snakes and Snails: Teenage Boys Tales ran bi-monthly from June 2010-Feb. 2011, sharing stories of her first time around as a parent of two teenage boys. — Check out Hindsight Parenting: Raising Kids the Second Time Around every first and third Tuesday of the month.