Teaching my daughters about their bodies and the food they eat is one thing. Teaching them to deal with what other people say about these things is a whole different ball game.
Here are examples of recent conversations I’ve had with my daughters that made me think hard about what I am teaching my children about body image:
Daughter #1: "Mum, why are there different thoughts about obese people? Some people at school call them “fat” and you don't like that word. Every day, when we go to school, the man on the radio talks about losing weight. If it’s OK to have different sized bodies, why do so many people want to lose weight?" she asked.
Me: "You know, there will always be someone — or a book or product — that tells you why you are not okay, even as you are. All of these opinions are to be ignored except your own. The only thing you will ever have to think about is the relationship that you have with your body. Do you understand?"
Both girls nod their heads yes. This is not their first rodeo. It’s a common topic in our household.
Me: "Our bodies are so intelligent that they can create a baby; isn't that cool?"
Girls: "Yuck, Mum! That's gross!"
Me: "That's beside the point. My point is, if your body can nurture, grow and deliver a human being, it can tell you when you are hungry and when you are full!"
[Perfected eye rolls by the girls].
They have heard this message from me over and over again. And they probably want me to stop now. I get the message, but I blatantly ignore it. I'm having a moment and I am driven by fear that someone else will undo all the hard work I have done to teach my girls to listen to and honor their bodies.
In times like this, I have to stop myself from projecting my past body image battles onto my children.
They are not me, I tell myself. I am not them.
My children have been called fat, and also ridiculed for their bones sticking out. And it’s not unusual for other kids to comment on what my girls bring to school for lunch.
Here is a recent example (all names have been changed):
Daughter #2: "I want to tell you something that Bailey said today at school. It's about you. I don't want you to be mad."
Me: "Oh honey, you can tell me anything." I relax my posture and tone to be reassuring. I want her to tell me.
Daughter #2: "I was eating some chocolate birthday cake at lunch today, you know, from Dad’s birthday. Bailey said to me, 'Your mom feeds you bad food. You're going to be chubby when you are older.'"
My girls really do get confused about the messages that they are getting at home around food and their bodies; it really conflicts with what they hear outside of the home from others, even from strangers. It’s true that there are a world of opinions out there, particularly regarding eating, weight and body sizes. These many opinions carry baggage beyond the mouths that speak them; and sometimes, sadly, from way beyond the grave.
While I cannot protect my children from everyone, I can teach them to listen to and honor their bodies. I do this by ensuring that I honor and listen to my body first. When I do this, and keep an open and supportive dialogue going, I have a chance to positively contribute to the way that my children relate to their body and the food they put in it.
We can teach our children to listen to, honor and trust their bodies.
Body image struggles start with fear and result in our disconnecting from and ignoring our body signals. As parents, we can positively reinforce the incredible intelligence of our bodies, and how, if we listen to this intelligence, we can trust it. When we do this, it will keep us healthy, strong and the best size for our unique body. Focus on this relationship with our bodies, and food choices will follow.
My job is to remind my daughters of this message — it is my gift to them. What they do with this message is, well, up to them.
Robyn Cruze, MA is National Recovery Advocate and the online community manager for Eating Recovery Center.