Somehow, despite popular opinion that Barbie would melt my pre-pubescent brain into a puddle of poor body-image-induced self-doubt so deep I would need intense psychotherapy for years to overcome it, I never felt a need to look like her. Those enormous blue eyes, that pointy chin, the twiggy legs, the waist so small it was unnatural...even at a young age I knew that it wasn't realistic to think that this was a role model worthy of emulation.
|Ada at about 1.5 years old. She had just found the anti-thesis of a role model: Trash Talkin' Turleen.|
Although I somehow derived the message that it was OK to like (and be good at) calculus, which has served me quite well, I can't say that Seventeen magazine did the same for my body image. Nor did the other thousands of images from TV and grown-up advertising. I knew exactly what I was supposed to look like, based on this, but I didn't look like those women - I was a young teenage girl. It warped me for a while. It wasn't until later, much later, that I grew to understand that my physical body is still pretty incredible in what it can do, that focusing on health and well-being was the true ticket to feeling comfortable in my skin and that the world is a more interesting place because we all look differently.
I'm worried for young girls these days. I'm worried for my daughter. I wonder if my mother worried for me. Perhaps it's just a generational thing and we all, and by that I mean parents, go through this same process of thought. But I know what she's up against and I spend an unbelievable amount of time thinking about how to help her feel confident, be healthy, and grow up respecting her body so that, dear God please hear my prayer now, she won't abuse it. Or let anyone else abuse it.
Regarding the messages my daughter will receive as she grows up I have come to accept that there are some things I can control and others that I can't. For a while at least I can limit her exposure to external pressure posed by things like Bratz dolls, weakling princesses and the Paris Hilton's of our world. There will come a time when I can't control her exposure to these things anymore. I get that. I just hope I've armed her with few skills to navigate the sharky waters of our society.
What I can control and will always be able to control are the messages she receives about herself from home. The lesson in this one started early. Ada was born in the 95% for both length and weight. She has never left this percentile. For over two and a half years now I've endured remarks about "what a big girl" she is and "she's SOOOO big!", as if that were a bad thing. I mean, girls are supposed to be dainty, right?
|The moment she slipped into our lives and everything changed for the better.|
To offset this, we are very careful now about speak to her and about her. I will never tell her she is too heavy for me to carry. Rather, I'm not strong enough to carry her. I never tell her she's too big for that shirt/those pants/those shoes. Instead I say that shirt/those pants/those shoes are too small for you now. Tim is a pretty sensitive guy and he understands, more than I do sometimes, when to say something and when to hold back. We've talked about this and he gets it: messages from her father are the first and most important messages she will ever get from a man and they matter. They matter a lot. He's on board and I'm so thankful that I married a man who understands what a fundamental role he plays in his daughters life.
|A playground in Manhattan, December 2011.|
The last part is, I think, the most difficult: what I model for her. She's watching me like a hawk, drinking it all in, learning how to behave, learning how to love herself by my example. If I weigh myself, so does she. If I pinch at my waist, so does she. If I speak negatively about myself she will learn to do the same to herself. If I have a strained relationship with food she will learn to fear food, not let it nourish her. Even though I've come a long, loooong way in shedding my own issues, I still have a few. I can't just pretend to be comfortable in my own skin - she'll see right through that. Rather, I need to show her how to love and respect herself by doing the same for myself.
It turns out that this is getting easier and maybe this is what being an older mom affords me. 40 years is a long time, but that's about how long it's taken to quiet my inner critic. And she can be so mean! She pipes up now and then but somewhere along the way I decided that she's just wrong and started telling her to can it. My imperfect body has done some incredible things: the most impressive is that it supported the growth of a baby for 40+ weeks and then pushed her out into the world! It's taken me through triathlons and marathons - even if I didn't have my hands raised up victoriously when I crossed the finish line. It's pushed forward on criminally low amounts of sleep during graduate and vet school. Despite whatever I've thrown at it or into it, my body has stayed strong and healthy. For the most part, I'm actually OK with myself - junk in the trunk included. So I quit picking on myself. I nourish my body with good, wholesome foods. She sees me rolling up my yoga mat or lace up my shoes and head out for a quick run. We drink water instead of sugary drinks or soda. These healthy behaviors our normal habits - they don't require constant attention, they just...are. The physical benefits naturally follow and hopefully she will incorporate some of these healthier behaviors into her own collection of habits.
|Our farm share box - one of the best things we've done since moving to San Francisco. I love it that Ada is learning that THIS is food.|
Finally, I think it's important to surround her with a community of extraordinary women. Luckily, I know lots of them in all shapes and sizes. The things that stand out about these women aren't the width of their hips or the depth of their wrinkles. It's the way they laugh with their mouths wide open, embrace a friend, exhibit compassion, and express generosity. They embrace my daughter as their own and one day when she can't come to me about something, I hope she will turn to one of them. It's funny but I don't even see the physical aspects of the people I love anymore - I'm focused more so on the complete person. I have learned to see myself this way and hope that Ada will learn to do the same. Ultimately, I hope that I can instill in her what it's taken me so long to learn, saving her a lot of grief.
I don't have it all figured out by any means. I'd love to hear stories, advice and plans from you too.