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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

kids, you, bodies, etc

I've been seeing a lot of people posting and referencing articles on how parents should talk to their daughter about her body. This topic has been on my mind for about 12 years. Well, truthfully, at least 24 years. Because that is when I was put on my first diet. I was in fifth grade.

I will admit fully that it took me some years to forgive my parents for putting me on diets and letting my brothers call me "extra large and in charge" and "wide load" for much of my youth. I used to blame them (inwardly) for the low esteem I had for my own body. "If only they hadn't put me on all of those diets while my brothers got to eat--nay, were encouraged to eat--everything they could put their hands on." I remember going to early hour high school at 6:55 a.m. with a piece of whole wheat toast with cucumbers and fat-free ranch on it for my breakfast and thinking, "I must be really fat to deserve this."

It took me years to realize that my parents were actually really kind to care about me and want me to be physically content with myself. They were putting me on diets because they were sincerely trying to help me. I was never thin, but I was never large. If only I could wear the pants I wore in high school when I thought I was "fat!" Wait, scratch that. It was the 90s and those pants were not awesome.

So, I don't hold a grudge against my parents any longer. What I put into my body now is totally my own choice. I cannot blame them for my desire to eat three scoops of ice cream or half a loaf of french bread with a hefty wedge of brie cheese. I can blame them for giving me really big quads and boobs, though. Because I know they planned on handing down those genes to me. Right?!

I spent so much of my youth worrying about my pant size and my weight. I will never forget in elementary school when the teacher had us all stand up and pinch our bellies. She said if we could "pinch an inch" then we needed to eat less. I was mortified. I don't even think I knew how big an inch was, but I was sure that I needed to eat less.

How do I give all of my children the right tools to deal with their bodies and self image? I've been trying to figure that out for most of my adult life.

HERE'S WHAT I DO KNOW:

1. All children are beautiful.
My kids don't even look like the are related to each other, but MAN, they are so beautiful. How amazing are these little people and all of their twinkling eyes and goofy grins? Sometimes I am baffled that any little kid could think they are anything but beautiful. Created in the image of God.

2. All bodies are SUPPOSED to look different.
What is this? The year 2439 when all humans will be genetically engineered to look the exact same? Uh, no.

3. Food is fuel.
We need to eat to survive. Calories in other countries are called "energy" which is what they give you. Stop giving negative connotations to simple words. The more close to nature the food, the more energy it gives our bodies. The end.

HERE'S WHAT I THINK:

1. Eating should not be considered "good" or "bad".
My friend mentioned this one to me and it rung so true that I heard bells for days. Kids hear when their parents say that they had a bad eating day or that they were good because of their food choices. Children have very simple categories: stealing is bad; sharing is good; hitting is bad; hugging is good. When they eat something full of sugar and hear the word "bad" alongside it, what are they grouping it with? Cheating, lying and murder? No wonder we feel guilt when we indulge in certain types of food.

2. Children need praise for all kinds of things, especially things that they can control / don't change
Nothing is more fickle than our bodies. We can easily break, scratch, burn and go bald. If all of our self esteem is in the way we look, then WATCH OUT! Because age screws everyone. I actually dislike when someone comments on if I have lost weight. It makes me feel like I am doing it for anyone other than myself and that it is important to everyone else. I love when someone compliments me on something I have said/done/accomplished or how I treated someone or made someone happy. Of course, I do like/need to hear that my husband finds me attractive. Fickle, fickle me.

3. We shouldn't avoid talking about bodies with our children.
Just because we shouldn't always be commending (or worse, degrading) our children's bodies, doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about them. It's a tricky subject, to be sure, and I am still not sure the best way to do this. Not so long ago, I had a talk with my oldest daughter about how our bodies change every decade or so and we have to reassess what we eat and how we exercise. If I ate only Cheetos all day now, I would get really shaky and nauseated. Fifteen years ago, I would have been fine. I tried to explain to her that she needs to start thinking about what she eats and how she stays physically active. "You can no longer eat like a child," I told her, "because your body doesn't think it is a child." I explained that I wanted her to know what I wish I had known, so I could make wise decisions for myself.

I was feeling like this was a good direction to help her learn and understand her body better. But, what happened? She cried and let me know that she thought she was larger than all of her friends.

Cue: mother heart breaking. 

No, little friend, you're beautiful. You're kind and funny and super smart. This is just how we learn to take care of our bodies.

Shoot.

Somehow I need to share the knowledge I have gained, without any pressure. Kids need to learn to eat well and exercise because it feels good and makes them happy. If it is negative pressure (or forced upon them) (or if, like me, they are the only child on a special diet), they will want to push back and control the situation. Or they will feel guilt and unaccepted.

I do tell my daughter she is beautiful. I also tell my sons that they are handsome. But I hope that what they hear more often is how much I like them for the people they are inside their bodies. Whatever they look like now or in the future is not nearly as big of a deal as the kind of people they are--how they treat people, their humor, work ethic, empathy, knowledge, etc.

So, it's not as easy as some articles I have read. It's not about avoiding talking about their bodies. Frankly, if parents don't begin the conversation on how to love and care for your own body, kids will never want to talk to their parents when they have questions/concerns.

It's also not about only telling your kid they are beautiful all of the time. Or never mentioning that they are beautiful. It is somewhere in the middle. Methinks.

I still struggle with my own reflection. But when I find something positive, I make sure that my children hear me showing gratitude for my self and the things my body can do. It will never look like it did when I was in high school, but oh FREAKING well. That doesn't make me any less valuable. 

Rock what you got. Let your kids know you love them in millions of ways other than their appearance. Teach them how to take care of their bodies. Get some perspective on life--it's not all about what you look like. Same goes for your kids.

Amen.

3 wise comments:

lj said...

I recently read Intuitive Eating, and in it there is a chapter specifically on how to treat/talk to your children about these types of things that I thought made a lot of sense. I got it from the library if you're interested.

Laraine Eddington said...

There are no bad bodies. There is only bad lighting.

Sue said...

Yeah. What Laraine said.

;)

PS. I think a good body image is one of the hardest things to impart as a parent, especially in this culture.