The Challenge? Love Yourself
“Does this dress make me look fat?” How many times have you uttered this phrase, or one similar? This, along with the knee-jerk reaction you can have to a friend decrying her big behind – which is often commiserated with, “Your big butt? Have you seen my muffin top?” – seems second nature. This “fat talk” is damaging to how we see and feel about ourselves, and yet it can be a daily occurrence.
How my children perceive themselves is very important to me. I want them to feel comfortable with what they see when they look in the mirror. I want them to know that how they look is not the sum of who they are. So, when my oldest was a tiny baby, I asked myself, “How can I expect her to be comfortable in her skin if I’m not comfortable in my own”?
I knew that I needed to make serious changes – the “fat talk” had to stop, the overly critical long stares in the mirror dissecting my body needed to end, and I had to seriously look at my own baggage. I needed to question why, based on how I thought about my weight or shape at any one moment, I believed that I wasn’t good enough. What changes could I make to feel better about myself, and to help my daughters understand that healthy self-esteem can’t be built on over-evaluation of appearance?
So why is this important? Well, firstly, I’d rather be stuck on a desert island with someone who knows how to find food, or keep my spirits up, than someone who is only concerned with looking good. Secondly, physical appearance is not stable, and our bodies are going to change over time, regardless of how hard we try to stop that. Also, what’s “in” today may not be desirable tomorrow. If we pin our hopes and aspirations in life on looking a certain way, we’re priming ourselves for dissatisfaction and failure, or a lifetime of soul-consuming manipulation of our bodies. Unless, of course, we’re one of the two in a million individuals who actually naturally fit the current ‘ideal’. Study after study shows that girls who have negative body-image are more likely to be depressed, and to avoid life-affirming experiences. They’re more likely to diet, hugely increasing their risk to develop an eating disorder or/and to be fatter than similar girls who didn’t diet.
I know that by the time my girls hit 14 what I think and say won’t be as important as what their peers think and say.
Scary? You bet.
So what to do? Mind-shaping. I took little steps to switch the focus from constantly comparing myself to others. I no longer weigh myself. My daughter sees me naked, sometimes matter-of-fact and sometimes joyfully. I want her to know that women’s bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes. I try new things, especially those things that take me out of my comfort zone, and I encourage her to do the same. I celebrate my successes and try not to dwell on my failures. I regularly tell my daughter she’s beautiful, but I also talk up the things she excels at, and try my best to help her with the things that cause her to struggle.
Tough as it is, I deal with the “fat” talk head on. When your 5-year-old asks you if they are fat, your gut says soothe her and say “Of course not, darling; you’re beautiful.” But this would plant the seed that fat is the worst thing she could be, so after much deliberation and preparation for when the inevitable question was posed, I said “You are fatter than some people; you are skinnier than other people and the same as some others. You are you, which is perfect and wonderful. We’re all different and that’s what makes us who we are.”
I explore with her why all the princesses she reads of seem to do nothing more than wait for Prince Charming while he’s out riding his white horse (horse riding seems infinitely more fun than sitting around waiting, don’t you think?); I ask her if she finds its strange that all her Barbies look exactly the same (do her friends and family all look exactly the same?); when she points out a pretty woman in a magazine, or on television, I talk about how much “help” that person had to look that way. I like to think that when she too stands before a mirror and evaluates her own body, she’ll have a strong sense what’s real and what’s durable.
I won’t lie: it was – it is – a work in progress, and it’s not always easy. But changing my approach has helped to not only create resilience in my daughter to help her navigate through a world that places a premium on being thin and looking a certain way, it’s also helped me to really embrace who I am, exactly as I am. Sure, I still occasionally catch myself about to engage in fat talk, or over-scrutinizing myself in a fitting room mirror, but most of the time my positive body image kicks in and gives me back the freedom I deserve.Suzanne Phillips is the program coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre and mother of two girls.