A member of the More To Love community asked for help on how to speak to her daughter about body-image. I do not have children so I don’t have the most direct experience with body-image and kids, but I certainly was a young woman with body-image issues.
When I began writing a response for this, I thought the most obvious would be a list on “how to positively talk to your daughter about her body” but the more I thought about this topic, my relationship with my parents, especially my mom, kept emerging.
Until puberty, I was a thin, normal-sized kid without a care in the world. Once I got my period, everything changed and I gained nearly 40 pounds one summer. I felt so embarrassed because I didn’t personally notice something was wrong, but everyone around me (kids, other kids parents, adults ect) started to make comments.
“Wow, lots of ice cream this summer Rachel?” (a neighbor)
“You’re right, she DOES always think about food!” (a friend)
“Going to open a farm with those udders?” (kids down the street)
I was 12 when saw my first nutritionist to help me lose weight. My nutritionist was in his late 60’s, rail thin and from what I gathered, totally checked-out of the profession decades ago. I felt so awkward there, me a young girl confessing to all I eat. He had me write out everything I ate until the next appointment. I starved myself for a week, only wrote down “crackers” and “water” because I thought anything I ate was going to be judged.
I told my parents I didn’t want to go anymore and without any second-thought, they never made another appointment. I’ve always felt my parents were on my side.
I was blessed to have loving, supportive parents who never shamed or made me feel ugly about my weight. I remember my mom telling me
“I’ll love you no matter what and I know how it feels to be a chubby teenager, and I don’t want you to feel the way I did.”
But still, I knew my “weight-problem” wasn’t fully adding up and it confused not only my parents and doctors, but me most of all. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always been athletic and ate very balanced meals, and whatever normal kids enjoy for treats, well, that didn’t explain the weight. It wouldn't be until my mid-20’s that a polycystic ovarian syndrome diagnosis explained much of my troubles with weight.
But until then, I lived with the idea of needing to be a “fixer” because it felt like no matter how hard I tried, I kept weight on. It made me feel like something was wrong with me, despite being an all-around good, smart, active teen. So I always tried to make things better, work harder, be more amazing in school and beyond to make-up for what I felt my body lacked.
I wasn’t teased relentlessly for my weight, but yet, I felt so embarrassed. The little messages from TV, classmates, other adults, media -- they added up and I’m the type of person who internalizes things like that. It really settled inside, but I don’t think anyone truly knew how I felt. I hid so much of my hurt from my parents because I didn’t want to upset them, but looking back, I wish I didn’t feel I had to hide away my feelings because they would have been there for me even more.
I consider myself lucky to have two parents who understood their children's well-being wasn’t only measured by weight. They instilled within me a great sense of purpose, confidence and encouragement that life was more than size and looks. I grew up with an appreciation for culture, art, music, academics, humor and raw-talent. My parents always trusted me and I spent most of my youth feeling very independent. And when kids lamented about their parents being strict and overbearing, I didn’t relate at all.
But like most women, the women of my family were dieters and I saw that play out for years. Even as a child, I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world - she always looked like perfection: hair so fresh, dark eyes, so fashionable, which honestly pales in comparison to her loving spirit. And she is still all those things and more today.
There is an unseen heritage of body-shame which gets passed down, while not overtly, it still finds a way in. And it’s never possible to pinpoint the start; much like a tree - there are thousands of roots all spreading under the surface.
I knew my mom’s own feelings of insecurity around looks, and it made me feel sad to think my mom didn’t realize just how gorgeous she is. I saw her struggle with weight for years, weighing herself daily and eating a meal separate from us, usually something small, green and (to me) totally not filling. She exercised daily outside, even in the unbearably cold Boston winter-mornings, my mother would be out there at 4:45am jogging.
My mom successfully lost her weight and has maintained it for nearly 20 years now. But there was something different about my mom’s approach to eating and weight loss than I saw other moms doing: my mother never pushed her method onto me. She never forced me to eat whatever she was eating, nor shamed me for wanting what I was eating.
She never said I looked ugly, too fat, shouldn’t wear that. She empathized with me, understood that it was more valuable to help me make sense of what was going on than to try and change me. I credit my strength and grit to my mom and dad’s constant belief in me and faith in how I was managing my life. It was a mutual trust not many of my peers experienced. I think all along, she understood her role was not to make me feel less-than for being larger, but to encourage me to learn what I had to learn for myself, and to be there whenever I needed her.
I now understand my mom’s own weight-story was her own, and she dealt with her body the way she had to. And honestly, I think it made her feel good because she was still a loving, caring mother who gave the world to her kids.
And while I was still chubby, I saw my mom lose her weight in a sane and healthy way. She lives that same way today, is 65 but doesn’t look a day over 45. Truly! She listens to her body, to her own needs, and I that’s what I’ve learned from her - how to do what you need to do for you.
Never once did I feel jealous, in fact, I was inspired. And so much of the balance I enjoy today with food, fitness and life, she taught me through her example.
But still with such an encouraging background to love myself, I felt the pressures to be a smaller size. I still felt embarrassed, shameful and apologetic of my body. Looking back now, nearing 30 years old and finally coming to peace with my body, I have to look at what I considered a struggle as a blessing, because without my weight issue, I wouldn’t have found such a deep source of pride, courage and peace from within.
We all have something we feel is our crucible...something we’ve prayed to vanish, to never have, to not feel the burden of. And for years, mine was a body I didn’t love wholly. But because I had those around me, like my parents and family, my community, friends, and my own investment in my wellbeing, I learned to eventually love the whole of me.
It was more valuable to be given the space, support and encouragement to work through my own troubles and find strength from that, than to be given a prescriptive roadmap to follow.