Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Daughters Body

When I was a little girl I loved Barbie. I had the car, the van, the house with furniture, piles of glamorous outfits and even a Barbie horse. I played with Barbie alone for hours building elaborate stories with plots and characters and scenes that I would practice with my dolls over and over again. Barbie and I were best imaginary friends for a long time.

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

9 Lovies:

Heather H said...

What a beautiful post and so true! I have no doubt that Ada will learn to love & take care of her body through the wonderful example you are setting & care you & your husband are taking to send her positive messages. Thanks for the reminder of what I should be doing as well. (P.S. My daughter has always been in the 90th percentile or higher for height & weight & we get all the same comments. Soooo annoying. There is nothing wrong with my daughter being tall!)

christina said...

i think, by now, you know my take on this. we've discussed it before, i've posted about it (well, about me being fat) before. i'm confident our girls will be ok. i really am. because we'll ensure it. lead by example. always. you hit the nail on the head with your final thoughts IMO.

Lisa said...

I kind of feel like an ass, because I honestly, have never ever worried about this with Maggie. I am sure I will in the future.

Andi said...

This is a great post. Thank you for the reminder.

stoked0604.blogspot.com (StokedWifey from TB)

Shell said...

You are putting so much thought into this. Which makes me think you'll do an amazing job guiding her.

Andi said...

I'm coming back to reply to yours since Blogger and replies are so dumb. :)

My husband and I are both very conscious of our bodies, but my husband is way worse. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to look good and until today, I hadn't really thought about how that might affect our son. I don't want him to feel that pressure early. But, hopefully, your post will also make me think if a little girl's presence graces our lives. *crossing my fingers*

Adrienne said...

SO beautiful! I love your heart for your daughter. I think what we say to them at home and our own actions carry so much more weight than what the world gives them. On the flip side of that, I think it speaks volumes when we say and do the wrong thing too.

Your pictures are beautiful!!

Serendipitie said...

You're so amazing. I think you're doing a great job and Ada is a beautiful, strong, bright, happy child. xoxo

jms said...

I have two comments - first, when I say to Ada or any child "what a big girl you are" it is often in the context of a compliment of how mature they are or how they have have just completed some task (like a puzzle) so don't get too hung up on that phrase. If you have heard us say it that and felt bothered by it then speak up girl! But you know Ada is going to be fine - she has you and Tim to stand up for her if someone does her wrong.

Second comment - I believe that the most important thing to develop positive self image in a child is living in a home where they feel safe, secure, loved, and can consistently know what to expect from day to day. That includes meals, comments from parents, bedtimes, healthy foods, etc. An occasional screwy comment or chocolate milk shake is not going to screw up an otherwise rock solid kid.

Now relax so I can go buy her some Barbies!

Love, Judy