The other day I saw a photo of myself standing near a river with my daughter and unbidden, the thought popped into my head.
“When on earth did my arms get so big? Look at the size of my thighs! Gosh I’ve gotten fat.”
I didn’t see my smiling daughter or the beautiful scenery or how happy we looked together.
I just saw imperfections that no one else would notice or care about.
I try to never say them out loud, but the fact is, the words we speak to ourselves are powerful.
Especially as mothers and role models.
Recently, my 11-year-old daughter has started feeling self-conscious about her weight.
She calls herself fat and says she hates her thighs and stomach.
Every time she tears herself down, it hurts my heart.
Not yet in her teens, and she’s already learned one of the first valuable lessons of being a woman: to scorn and hate her body. She envies the thin girls and says sometimes other kids tease her. She’s self conscious about what she wears and tries to hide in baggy t-shirts and stretchy pants.
I feel lost as to what to do.
And I remember all too well whispering those same words to myself as a child, even though I wasn’t overweight.
The truth is I still do.
As a mother, not only am I trying to figure out how to help my daughter see what I couldn’t when I was younger, I’m trying to teach myself the same thing. I want the two of us—and other women—to see our beauty just as we are. I want us to truly believe that weight is the least important part of a person. That thin doesn’t equal happy. That energy spent on working on the inside of yourself is so much more valuable than working on the outside. Physical fitness and proper nutrition are valuable components of being a well-rounded person and I love running and hiking, but so many of us are being completely consumed by the pursuit of perfection.
Women have made so many advances in the past 50 years and yet, time after time we consistently fail ourselves—and our daughters—by this continued obsession with what we look like on the outside. Social Media is the best example of how wrapped up we become in the superficial. I catch myself scrolling through photos of impossibly fit women on Instagram and feel a stab of jealousy or a hint of self-loathing over my own flawed body before stopping the thoughts. All too often, the unrealistic things we surround ourselves with become what we strive to be. So let’s surround ourselves with strong women. Happy women. Women supporting and uplifting and loving themselves and others.
I frequently tell my daughter to use kind words on herself. If she wouldn’t say the words to a friend, she shouldn’t direct them at herself either. I try to remind her of all her good qualities. I tell her how important it is to care of your body by eating healthy foods and limiting treats. I encourage her to be active alongside me. Our children learn by imitating.
Yet I still worry.
Dr. Kristin Vanden Hoek, a doctor-level clinical psychologist who works primarily with adolescents and young adults, said body image is the biggest shame trigger she sees for women and girls, though the sources and specific insecurities vary significantly from person to person.
“One practice I do with girls is to have them fill out a form that lists all of the parts of their bodies, even down to eyelashes,” Dr. Vanden Hoek said. “Then I have them talk about how they think and feel about each part.”
She then has the girls reflect on what each part literally does for them and how it helps them every day.
“This exercise not only promotes a deeper understanding of their own beliefs and biases, but also allows them to focus on what else is also true and good about that part of their body,” she said.
Another tactic to help promote positive body image is to focus on healthy habits instead of numbers on a scale or a clothing size.
“I also focus with clients on how they feel right after they do it,” she said. “For example, with exercise I focus on how they feel more positive, hopeful, energetic, focused etc. right after they finish rather than looking to weigh less immediately.”
She emphasizes food as a source of energy instead of something inherently bad or good.
And that pursuit of the perfect body? Stop focusing on the impossible.
Dr. Vanden Hoek recommends focusing on and celebrating progress, not perfection.
“Children and adolescents easily get caught up in all or nothing thinking,” she said. “Either they are being healthy or unhealthy. However, even small changes and progress really add up over time. Progress is also much more realistic and easy to find when you are looking for it. Perfection never happens and usually employs shame to create change as opposed to progress, which employs self encouragement and grows self-esteem and a sense of competency.”
I’m practicing changing my thinking about my body. The truth is, I’m so fortunate to have a healthy body that is capable of amazing things. And I want to model this gratitude not only for myself but for my daughter.