Sunday, March 21, 2010

Breaking the Cycle - Raising a Daughter With A Healthy Self-Image

One of the bloggers I have recently started following, Anne Collier of Net Family News, distributed a link to an article from addressing a "sexting" case in which a couple of 15 year old girls were caught having sent provocative pictures of themselves via text message and a group of boys were forwarding them to each other's phones.  The issue was not so much that teens are experimenting with sexual exploitation - we all went to high school - but that the judge in the case was threatening to convict the girls of child pornography which would technically classify them as sex offenders.  I thought it was an interesting article and found it unsettling on a multiple levels. Two days later, I encountered another instance involving the distribution of provocative photographs, this one a bit closer to home, involving an acquaintance.  So, I'm now looking at this from the perspective of a woman, of a woman who has always struggled with body image issues, of a woman approaching thirty, of a woman whose body has become a completely amazing and foreign enigma, and ... what really kept me up last night.... of the mother of a daughter.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm all about free speech and free love.  I think the human body is a beautiful thing and I am far, far, far from prudish.  HOWEVER, I'm pretty upset over this.  I spent most of yesterday thinking about this in the context of how do we keep our daughter from exclusively linking her self worth with her body - from measuring her value by the numbers on the scale or by her bra size, or by her pants size while still instilling a well-rounded sense of confidence?  How do I keep her from instinctively using her body as a tool to get attention and affection verses her mind, her heart or her spirit?  In the moment, upset and not knowing what else to do, I had a long conversation with Moon Pie in which I told her over and over and over again how amazing and wonderful and beautiful she is.  With out much else to go on, I figured I'd start there.  I have no idea what she looks like, I don't really care... beauty is relative and simply, I guess its never too early to start building her self confidence... but surely there's more I can do.

Then I started thinking about myself and my own struggles as a woman with body image issues.  I would tell you, this moment, right now, without flinching, that I have never been "skinny" a day in my life.  I will look you straight in the face and tell you this, knowing full well that I have about eight pairs of  size 2 and size 4 pants in my closet that I was wearing three years ago that I can't bring myself to throw away.  Three years ago I was still desperately trying to lose weight obsessed with 'just 10 more pounds'.   I could bore you with all of the dysfunctional things that I have done over the course of my life in an effort to make myself thin but none of them are unique, you've heard them all and seen them all, we've all seen the after school specials, body image demons are nothing if not cliche in today's society.  Honestly, it hasn't been until right now, with the third trimester of pregnancy, that I have really come to understand my body and see it as a whole verses a waist vs. hips ratio and something that is "almost there".  Honestly, I have gained more weight with pregnancy than I had planned but I am also doing everything in my power to have a healthy baby so, much to my surprise, I'm really not bothered by the number on the scale.  The two things I am looking forward to over the course of the next 12 months is a renewed commitment to exercise to develop a strong body (verses being able to see my hip bones jutting out when I lay down while dealing with dull, thinning hair) and implementing the nutritional information I have adapted with the gestational diabetes into a lifelong, healthy, dietary plan.  That sets me on the right path and I feel good about the head space I am in right now with regards to my own self-image.... ironically, probably better than I have ever felt in my life.  But what about our daughter?

It's no secret that my side of the family is not setting any metabolism records and its also no secret that Hunter's side of the family does not have the most healthy dietary regimen.  This could make for a very unhealthy combination and a life-long struggle.  Not to mention the fact that with the development of gestational diabetes both she and I are now 60% more likely to develop type II diabetes later in life.  I fear that we're potentially starting behind the eight ball when it comes to body image issues.  So, my goal is to find some magical way of reinforcing a healthy life style without making it about size.  I know this means that, as a mother, I can't be crash dieting or complaining about how I look and feel and that I also can not micromanage everything that she puts into her mouth or her level of physical activity.  My hope is, that with the proper environment, she will make healthy decisions of her own volition and that we (yes, darling, I know you're reading this and that means you too)will set a very strong example.

My other concern and challenge as the mother of a daughter is to keep her from having a skewed perception of the value of her physique - a.k.a. sending provocative pictures to freshman boys to get attention, love, or affection.  I remember high school. Trying to keep sex from being a focal point at that time in a person's life is laughable but if we can just keep it in a healthy context and keep it from becoming consuming then I think we will have succeeded.  Hunter and I both agree that the importance of having a well informed child very much outweighs the awkwardness that this education can occasionally bring.  However, in addition, if we can somehow, magically, teach well-rounded intimacy that is not exclusively physical, maybe... just maybe.... she'll fall in love with a guy who reads Neruda to her on their second date instead of the guy who keeps eying her entirely too short skirt.

Looking back on my own struggles, seeing the women that I know and love struggle all of these years and living in a society that is completely addicted to and obsessed with an unobtainable image of the perfect female form at any cost just breaks my heart.   As I write this, I think about the women that I know today who seem truly happy and they are intelligent, creative, quick-witted, talented and stylish.  They are women who love to read books and write journals and knit and cook and run and do yoga.  They are single, engaged, in relationships, and married.  Every single one of them are absolutely gorgeous, elegant and classy.  Every one of them tend to be fully clothed when they leave the house and I doubt if any of them of them looks like a Maxim cover when she steps out of the shower.  I have no earthly idea how much any of them weigh because we rarely discuss it and these confident, well-rounded, exquisite, happy women are the ones that I hope will help me to raise a daughter who is confident, well-rounded, exquisite and happy herself.  


KitschenBitsch said...

I'm positively teary-eyed reading this. I was perusing the other day and a woman had written a heartrending letter asking how she could avoid passing her body image issues along to her daughter. It can't be 100% prevented -- nothing can. The best you can do is love her and accept her, and you will know exactly how to help her love herself by the way you love her.

Anne said...

Julie, thank you so much for following and mentioning my blog - I'm honored. This is an amazing post. My father started "watching my weight" for me when I was 9 or so, if not before, so looks and weight preoccupied way too much of my conscious thought most of my growing-up years. I guess it was good (it was as much about self-discipline as appearance) and bad (a symptom of exactly the imbalance and obsession with the superficial that you write so eloquently about) and reflective of our insane societal values, so I'm not complaining. But I think you're wise and loving to be thinking about it as you prepare to raise a daughter. And I also think that, just by the fact that you're consciously challenging the thinking (or lack thereof) behind these cultural norms, you and she will have a wonderful, thoughtful, enriching, comforting conversation about all this as she grows up. She's a lucky girl to have you as a mom! Love,

shris said...


I went on my first diet in elementary school--not because I was fat, but because my mom was on a diet and it was only logical to cook once for both of us.

There were a series of diets. Some of them were laughably awful (pickled beets for breakfast, anyone?).

By the time I was in 8th grade, though, I was overweight. I have been so ever since. Sometimes with more mental anguish about it, sometimes less. Sometimes breaking down in distraught tears in front of my husband. I tried a lot of stuff to get rid of the weight over the years, never with any permanent success (yet).

Now I am a mother of a boy and a girl (twins). My daughter, now 5, has been expressing body image issues for about a year, which gives me the same anxiety you have. She has clearly learned this from her daycare friends, as we try to focus on healthy in this house. Heck, I haven't even taught my kids modesty yet in an effort to refrain from teaching them shame.

Every time these body image issues come up, I try to express love and appreciation for her and explain the difference between what she is talking about and what she is (she's at the 5% mark for weight, and 50% for height--she's lean but not bony). I can only explain that she is perfect the way she is, and that she is so far from being overweight she doesn't need to worry now. That she is beautiful and doing exactly what she should be doing. I do not think she is seriously anxious about her body--she is parroting what other people say. But I feel it's important never to let a single hint go by without addressing it with more healthy reflections.

I still have some body image issues myself, but I am trying to refocus myself on health than size or shape or texture (see also: twinskin). It is difficult, but I try also not to be self-conscious about my fat (and since my BMI is at the border of obese, I do have fat) and to speak matter-of-factly about it to my kids when the subject comes up. Mostly I explain where it comes from (eating more calories than I need) and that they mustn't talk about someone else's fat to anyone else because others might get their feelings hurt. Other than that, they are not very interested. I hope to preserve that lack of interest as long as possible, honestly, because I think it would be better for them not to care about someone else being fat than to observe, whisper, point, or worse yet ask about it/tease/etc.

But when it comes up, as it will, again and again, I will address it in as honest a way as I can. It is all I can do.

Jennifer said...

I think the best thing we can do is actually model for our daughters that we love ourselves and that we accept our bodies for the amazing things they can do each day. Taking care of ourselves is the best way to show them how to take care of themselves also.

They are more than how they look and so are we as women and their mothers who they look up to (at least occassionally even if they don't admit it!).

It is difficult, though. We are fighting the media and their peer influences.