My daughter came home from school recently and worriedly said, "Mom, we did an experiment at school today with a scale, and I weigh 58 pounds. Is that okay?"
"Honey, you're perfect," I replied. "You eat right, you exercise and you take care of yourself. Your body is perfect."
She looked at me doubtfully and wandered off in search of a mirror. I was left wondering how in the heck an eight year old could already have a negative body image.
And then I remembered. I'm her mother.
I've had a negative body image since I was a child. It's something I've struggled with, worked on, ignored, indulged in and struggled with again. At 28 I remember stepping on the scale in my doctor's office and being thrilled that I'd finally gotten down to the double digits. My doctor, not as thrilled, sent me to an eating disorder clinic.
It has been a monumental effort, then, to keep my body image in check for my children. My husband and I rarely, if ever, even discuss weight. We simply model the behavior we expect from the kids -- eating right, exercising, playing outside as much as possible. I've never wanted my daughter's weight in particular to be an issue with her, and so I've tried to ensure that weight -- hers or mine -- was not an issue with me.
Later that same evening, however, her homework involved our own bathroom scale. She needed to weigh various objects around the house, and after finding a couple, she said, "I need one more. Mommy, let me weigh you." And I froze.
I've never even gotten on a scale in front of my husband. At the doctor's I'll strip to the point of indecency to bring that number down. And yet here was my girl, asking to weigh me and to record it for her class. What could I do? I braced myself and stepped on.
"Okay," she said. "Let's see. 144.5 pounds. Is that right?"
"Yes, that's right," I replied. "144." In my head I knocked off the half pound for my sweats, but my voice betrayed nothing -- no judgment, no despair. Just, yes, this is what I weigh.
"Point 5," she corrected me.
(Sigh.) I abandoned the fight. "Yes, 144.5," I said. "You're right." She wrote it down and walked out, pleased as punch that her homework was done.
I stood there for a moment longer. And I thought about two famous women, arguably role models for women and girls everywhere, who have had their own weight issues. A few years ago Jennifer Love Hewitt was skewered in the press because of a photograph of her in a bikini, and she defended her shape and her good health. Soon after she was touting her weight loss.
Last year it was Jessica Simpson's turn. Defending herself over a photograph that spurred criticism over her weight gain, she essentially said, "Hey, I'm happy, I'm in love, I'm healthy, so back off." For the first time in my life, I admired Jessica Simpson ... until a few weeks later, when she was flaunting her weight loss.
When they were defending their weight, their curves, their physical humanness, it made me feel good. I was proud of them for sending such a positive message to our young girls and women, that swizzle-stick-thin is not in everyone's range of healthy -- nor is it in everyone's range of beauty. And then they went and blew it by losing the weight.
We can't have it both ways. We can't publicly accept our bodies and privately hate them. We can't do that to our girls. I keep a photo of myself with pencil-thin arms to remind me how unhealthy too thin can be, because of all people, I know. At least, I should know.
I may not ever be able to fix this thing that's wrong with me, this self-image problem that I've had for so long. But I do know that I have to help my daughter -- either to stop it from starting, or if I'm too late, then to help her work through it now before it colors her whole life. And I know, as well, that whether or not I can fix me, I still must start with me, or I will have no credibility with her.
So I will work on breaking this cycle. Instead of my perpetual assumption that I'm fat, I will try to focus my internal dialogue on the positive. I'm healthy, I eat right and exercise, and I'm setting the best example that I can for my daughter. Someday, after enough time and energy, I may even start believing it.
And if -- when -- that day comes, then darn it, my body really will be perfect.
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