I was picked up for gymnastics carpool and I jumped in the passenger’s side back seat to sit next to my friend. We were both wearing our leotards for class. I looked down at my bare legs on the seat and saw that my thighs spread – more than my friend’s. Horrified, I immediately put my toes to the floorboard and pushed enough to lift most of my legs off of the seat beneath me. I was in fifth grade, probably only 55 lbs and an athlete by any standard for my age (10).
I don’t remember when I adopted such a distorted view about myself. It’s just always been there. I come by it honestly enough, really. My mother has always managed an eating disorder. Her mother unconsciously taught her the best bits about how to mix up emotions and food by a life-long, live-in example. My sister died a bulimic. I knew all of this wasn’t normal, but it was still my normal. I was an athlete for most of my young life, so I didn’t wear my issues. Painfully shy, I never had to discuss them. I survived high school and went on to get TWO bachelor’s degrees – one in Psychology and one in Culinary Nutrition. Mmmmm hmmm. That path wasn’t altogether planned from the get-go. I’m claiming 20/20 hindsight on that one.
I never really saw the mangled view of myself as a barrier to all other kinds of happiness. It was normal. Actually, I fit right in with most girls growing up. If our conversations proved anything to me, it’s that I was right to feel a certain way about myself or about my thighs. It was almost expected. I mean, who are YOU to be happy with yourself?
And then I had a girl.
As modern parents, we manage our children’s exposure to what we think may harm them. At an impressionable five and two years, I shield them from unnecessary violence or hurt, while still bearing to watch the lessons learned by pain. I try to temper the shelter with the exposure, where appropriate. I didn’t realize early on that I could be the bad influence. The realization happened gradually. I didn’t want to expose her to those ideas. You know, the whole “Do these pants make me look fat?” mantra some women (I’m guilty) utter when getting dressed. The “I’m being bad today (while eating anything other than a cucumber)!” refrain sung by hungry women everywhere. No.
Not for her. But how?
I would ZIP IT. That’s how. That was my band-aid solution. Just don’t mention it. Here’s how that’s worked out so far: In shielding her, something’s changed in ME. When I don’t say the obligatory horrible comment about my appearance, I quit hearing it so loud. I don’t know if I’ll ever quit thinking it as those grooves are deep. The generations of ick are hard to suppress. I still have crazy thoughts like, “I wish I looked like that in MY jeans” (looking at my pre-pubescent FIVE YEAR-OLD). And I know those thoughts are
crazy CRAZY (really, I do).
I’ve also realized that I can’t just leave it there. Avoiding the impulse to say harmful things is a great start and I’ve given myself credit for that but I can’t lead her to somewhere I haven’t been. This parenting thing, it’s an excellent cause to want to be better – to make myself better, to learn. Even with my educational background, I sought out more help. It was hard for me to start out with any focus other than food. Ellyn Satter’s book, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, was recommended to me by a trusted friend aware of my hang-ups. I really took to Ms. Satter’s Division of Responsibility method. The simplicity spoke to me. Here’s the core idea: Parents have feeding jobs. Children have eating jobs. You stay on your side of the plate, the kids stay on theirs. It’s freeing – once you can let go and embrace the concept.
We’re still a work in progress over here. I’m still a work in progress. My daughter is only five, and I’m working as she grows – on a plan and on myself. I’m not sure about the next step but I do know this: She won’t have a foundation of negativity from her home (from me). We’ll feed her confidence. We’ll feed her truth, while we have these few, precious years of influence. We’ll be the mirror in which she sees herself. It’s important to have people in our lives that see us clearly, that can hold our reflection up so we can see the good as well as the bad. The outside will come in eventually. I know that. Unfortunately, I don’t think that can be helped. We’ll help her to apply or disregard the ideas of female beauty she brings back to us.
You’ve probably already seen that Dove has a pretty cool campaign going on right now. It speaks to my point.