I'd love to tell my daughter that I have always loved my body. That I have never abused it to lose a few pounds. That health has always taken a front seat to vanity.
I'm not going to tell this lie to her.
At age 7, she is still pretty innocent about body image and weight. Just recently, she said I wasn't as skinny as another mom. I didn't get mad because, well, she's a kid. Plus, I knew she was joking. We talked a little about how when you listen to your tummy and eat in a balanced way, you grow into the body God intended for you, which is different for everybody. I said some people can get messed up with trying to force their body to be something it's not. But I stopped there.
Someday I'll tell her and her brother the story of my bumpy road to body acceptance. In middle school, I tried to bleach my freckles and wore only black to look thin. When I gained some weight after puberty, I decided to take it off before my senior year in school because I wanted to be "skinny." Slashing my food intake in half, I dropped below 110 pounds, way too low for my 5'4" frame.
Yes, I got compliments, but they didn't help me. Because when you are young and get attention for what you look like, you wonder if people like the real you. It only fed the unhealthy cycle I was unknowingly engaging in.
Throughout most of my 20s, I lost and gained the same five to 10 pounds, but eventually, inched my way to a healthier way of dealing with food and my weight. I began listening to my body and ate well and exercised, to find the scale stabilizing at a comfortable place over about 10 years. I gained about 30 pounds with both of my pregnancies and my weight naturally went down over time. Once I came up for air after having my second child, I noticed my body was set on staying 10 pounds above my pre-kid weight -- with the same balanced way of eating and regular exercise that had become my preferred way of life.
I thought I was beyond the lose-weight-and-try-and-change-my-body stuff, but it's amazing how "thin = acceptance" is so ingrained. I started considering going to bed hungry, skipping chocolate and working out at levels that just weren't realistic.
But something more powerful emerged, and that was the new pair of eyes through which I began to see my body. The extra skin (and padding) on my stomach wasn't gross, but a reminder of how blessed I am to have two healthy children. My body wasn't as thin as it used to be, but it felt strong and healthy, something confirmed at annual physicals. I was becoming grateful for how much my body has done for me, and how much more I want to get out of it.
If I'm 100 percent honest with myself, losing weight at this point in my life would not be for my health, it would be for attention. To be the mom who gets compliments like, "I can't believe you've had two kids and are (gulp) over 40." But luckily, with my new eyes, that desire to look perfect has faded the same way smoke does after a fire.
Two things have changed me: children and time. I know that no matter what my children look like, I will think they are the most beautiful people on earth. How can I treat myself so differently than I treat them? This amazing love, no doubt, has helped put to rest that girl who wanted the wrong kind of attention, for all the wrong reasons. Why was she so hard to let go of?
And with time -- and the hard life lessons, like losing loved ones -- I can see what is really important in life. Why would I put my energy into being a certain weight when there's so little time to love and do what really matters?
So I will continue to teach my kids that bodies aren't meant to be perfect or one-size-fits-all. They are meant to be healthy, strong and well cared for. It just feels good to finally believe it.