Yesterday something happened that gave me pause, and I felt immediately felt compelled to share the experience. I was helping my 7 year old daughter pick out something to wear to school, and with my assistance she selected a cute pair of burgundy corduroy jeans. I left the room so she could dress, and shortly after she called me back with an urgent sounding “moooommmm!” Upon my return she had an exasperated look on her face and with frustration told me she couldn't button up the pants. Sometimes 7 year olds have a tough time with snaps and buttons, so I asked her to try again while I stood there to see if I could help. It became clear that the pants were too tight to fit her comfortably. She insisted she almost had them done up, and she kept pulling and straining in her attempts to fasten them around her middle. I expressed my concern that even if she could button them, they would likely be too tight and uncomfortable to wear to school, and perhaps she should pick something that would fit her better. She gave me a defeated look and in her adorable seven year old voice said, almost under her breath, “I’m just too fat…..” In an instant, my heart broke! How could it be that my seven year old is already viewing her body with such self criticism?
Hopefully my gut response was the right one. Immediately I told her “stop and listen to me. You are beautiful, and your body is strong and healthy. I don’t want you to feel this way about yourself. Your body is wonderful just the way it is!” We were running late and I felt like I couldn't really address the topic any better at that moment. We chose something else for her to wear, and pretty soon she and her older brother were out the door on their walk to school.
After they were gone and I began racking my brain. Have I ever suggested that she was “fat” or anything similar? Did she hear me talk about my own body in deprecating ways? Heaven knows I think enough of those thoughts; it would only make sense those sentiments would escape my brain and cross my lips from time to time. Perhaps she overhead me say something.
To be truthful I have been a bit concerned about my younger two children who are thicker and stouter than my older two. They also seem to have bigger appetites and often emotion seems to play into their eating. We have discussed many times in our house that food is simply fuel for our bodies and we should not use food to help us feel better. We have high rates of Type II diabetes in our family history. My mother is diabetic, and so was her father and many of her aunts. My mother-in-law had diabetes as well as both of her parents, and my father-in-laws mother was diabetic as well. The genetic deck of cards is pretty stacked against my children. My goal is to help them adopt healthy habits in regards to exercise and nutrition because if they get inactive and overweight, they don’t stand much of a chance of escaping diabetes.
My older two children are string beans. They've been that way for years. As a result my two daughters have very different builds. My oldest being very tall, thin and leggy: My youngest having a longer torso, shorter legs, and a little belly paunch that has not yet gone away with toddler-hood. Many of the clothes I saved from my oldest daughter for my youngest simply do not fit. Many of the shirts are “belly shirts” when she lifts her arms above her head. I have felt frustrated in finding clothes to fit her, and have been disappointed that many of the hand-me-downs I thoughtfully set aside were not usable. Did she ever pick up on that frustration? Did I ever make her feel badly about that?
As fortune would have it, her brother stayed after school for an activity, and the older kids were not yet home. This meant I had a rare moment; just the two of us. As we sat at the kitchen table I asked her, “how do you feel about your body?” Her response was a simple “good.” I asked if she ever wished her body was different, and she expressed that sometimes she did. Sometimes she felt like she was too fat. I asked who or what has made her feel that way. She told me her older brother had at times told her she was fat, or if she ate too much she would get fatter. She told me her friends didn't care about it, so I surmised this was an internal family matter, and not something she was hearing at school. I felt relieved I didn't have to contend with school mates over whom I have very little control. It did, however, make me feel concerned about how to talk about this with my son. I have yet to sit him down and discuss this matter, and I hope I can convey to him how much words like this can hurt.
I told my amazing daughter it is important for her to love and respect her body; that her body is wonderful and beautiful. We talked about how we need to take good care of our bodies by eating good foods in the amounts it needs and getting enough exercise. As long as we are doing our best to take care of our bodies that it is all we can ask of ourselves. We should have love and gratitude for our body no matter how it is sized or shaped. We also talked about how our bodies are unique and different than anyone else’s, and that is so much more than okay! She seemed receptive to my words and I prayed she was internalizing them. I am very grateful for the alone time we had to talk about this.
Through this mothering experience my eyes have been further opened to a couple truths I already knew. Little children are VERY open and sensitive to everything they observe and hear. And, if I want my daughter to have love and reverence for her body, perhaps I need to do the same by quieting the body critic inside my own head. After all, as woman thinketh, so is she!