Last week, I had the chance to relive my sorority days just a wee bit when the women of Delta Phi Epsilon invited me to keynote their annual conference in Miami. The speech I prepared was a confidence-themed talk in which I deftly managed to use Sex and the City as a metaphor for life. I won't reveal all my secrets here, but let's just say I successfully equated Samantha's first HIV test with my decision to withdraw my med school applications and become a writer. (The link? Both were about facing your fears.) I was also thrilled to highlight the line, "Jesus honey! Wax much?"on a giant AV screen during my PowerPoint presentation, and apologized in advance if I attempted to sniff any of the audience member's heads or nuzzle any of the necks, as this was my first trip away from my 5-month-old daughter, Evie. (As an aside, I was able to smuggle 60 ounces of breast milk through security without so much as a raised eyebrow... although a man standing at the Starbucks condiment counter holding an empty silver canister of 2% did cast quite the longing glance my way.)
After the keynote, I hosted a body image breakout session. Now, I've given this particular talk dozens of times, in front of audiences as daunting as 2,500 and as intimate as a few dozen. I always begin it by showing the Dove "Onslaught" video -- in it, the camera focuses on an innocent little redhead, her self-esteem not yet mangled by mainstream media. Then, the screen fills with a series of rapid-fire images of women as we are portrayed everywhere we look: Half-naked women dancing in music videos, women having their breasts sliced open for implants, women worshipping the scale, women on TV promising this cream will make us younger/firmer/prettier/thinner, women purging into toilets... you get the drift. (I encourage you to watch it right now, even if you've already seen it. Actually, I wish I had viewed it once again before screening it; you'll know why in a moment.)
So I clicked on the link and the video started rolling. And as I stood behind the podium, my eyes began to well up and my throat started to constrict as I watched, this being the first time I've seen the video as a mother of a little girl. The thought of Eve hating herself, of her comparing her body to anyone else's and thinking, "I'm not good enough," the thought of her dieting or sticking her finger down her throat or swallowing an appetite suppressant? It's heartbreaking. Watching the video in that moment crystallized it all for me. Unfortunately, the crystallization was happening in a room full of strangers. Before I could fully realize how quickly my emotions were going to rush out of me, the 1:19 video was over and I was completely overcome. I stood there, barely shielded by the microphone, full-out sobbing into my hands and I struggled to eek out, "I am so sorry," but I couldn't even speak. The meltdown felt like it lasted an hour, but I know it was just 20 seconds or so, and ultimately I regained my composure and went on to tell the group of my own story of hating my body and dieting and sticking my finger down my throat. It's only now that I realize the pain and heartbreak my own unhappiness brought upon my parents, and for that, I am truly sorry.
After my talk, two young women approached me. One was a model, tall and lanky with strikingly big eyes and a pillowy pout. Not even a senior yet, she has been featured on the cover of major women's magazines -- they very ones I write for.
She was crying.
Her mother, she told me, criticizes her for her weight. "She tells me I'm blowing up," she revealed. I Googled her stats online: She's 5'9", a size four. 32-24-34.
Isn't your mother the one who is supposed to constantly champion you? To encourage you and promise you that you are beautiful, inside and out, no matter what? Maybe I was just fortunate to have that type of experience -- my mom never, ever made a cruel comment to me about my body or looks. Sure, she forced me to change a questionable outfit or two, but it was never done in a way to make me feel ashamed or embarrassed about my physique.
Evie, I will never criticize your body for the way it looks.
I will never call you fat (or "skinny," or any other weight-based label) and I will never stand for others doing so, either.
I will never ask you to go on a diet.
I will not allow a scale to pollute where we live.
I will do my absolute best to model healthy behaviors in our home, like playing outside, cooking wholesome, yummy foods, keeping misogynist shows off the TV and cancelling that damn lingerie catalog that arrives, week after week, making me -- someone who flat-out knows the airbrushed images are practically cartoons -- feel like crap. Still, I know that even these efforts cannot innoculate you.
I will not allow you to feel less-than -- not on my watch. And if (and when... I know it is when, not if) you do, I will do my best to help you work through it, to show you the true beauty and exquisiteness I see within you when I gaze at you in your crib at night.
I will back you up as you pursue your passions.
I will compliment you on your strength, your smarts and your kind gestures.
I will fight and claw to give you every possible opportunity to love and embrace yourself, inside and out, so you don't wind up saddled with the same sort of awful body image issues I, for whatever reasons, wound up with.
I will do my absolute best to ensure that when you look into my eyes, you see the reverence and adoration and acceptance I have for you as your own person reflected back.
Evie, I promise to forever be your champion.
[And to the people at Dove... I'm sending you this month's therapy bill!]
Parents, what body image promises are you making to your daughters and sons?