Saturday, September 17, 2011

daughters and body image



This week, during preschool drop-off, one of the other moms was dressed in workout attire. B noticed and asked, "are you going to the gym?" The gym is part of my weekly routine, so B picked up on the similarity in this woman's clothes and my gym clothes.

The mom let out a big sigh and replied solemnly, "yeah, I have to go to the gym."

B asked, "Why you have to go to the gym?"

The mom said, "I have to work out so that I can eat junk food and still wear a size 8."

Anyone else shocked by that statement? I was too surprised to say anything in the moment. Too slow to cover B's ears. I expect to have to shield my daughter, to help her process negative messages regarding body image. I just wasn't expecting it at age 3.

This mom is a nice woman, good intentioned, but I've witnessed her several times making self-deprecating comments in front of her daughter and mine. I've heard her say jokingly, "I hate her" about women she perceives are younger, thinner and more beautiful than she is. She's asked me blatantly about my dress size. Not wanting to have that conversation openly on the playground, I told her "it depends on the brand of clothing."

Later on this week, when I was dressing to go running, I asked B, "do you know why Mommy goes to the gym?"

I explained that I like to exercise because exercise makes us healthy and strong. "Moving our bodies feels good," I told her. "I enjoy running and listening to music, just like you enjoy dancing and riding your bike." Also, at the gym, we see lots of friends. We go swimming. It's fun!

She seemed to understand what I was saying, but I wondered, am I saying the right things? Am I saying too little? Too much?

I was just assigned a magazine feature about body image, and as I delve into the research and interviews, I'm feeling pretty discouraged. Eating disorders are not only on the rise, they're appearing at younger ages. Once source, a psychiatrist and author on the topic, said she counseled a (healthy, thin) 7-year-old girl who obsessed about the "points" value of everything she ate. Guess whose mom was on Weight Watchers?

That's not a slam against Weight Watchers. And it's not to say daughters whose mothers do Weight Watchers (or any other diet plan) are doomed. The psychiatrist just cautioned moms: your daughter is tracking you like a hawk. What is she seeing? How do you interact with food in front of her? How do you treat your body? Do you celebrate its strengths or are you critical? Dads, what do you say about Mom's body in front of the kids?

I don't weigh myself or talk about my size. I don't diet (partly because I grew up with a mom who dieted constantly, and I saw how unhealthy it can be). I do avoid sugar and limit the sugar my kids consume, because I've noticed a strong mood connection (too much sugar has a depressing effect on me, and it makes the kids grouchy). I hope the general message I'm sending to my kids is that exercise and good foods make us feel good, they give us energy and make us strong. Treats are just that: treats. We enjoy them sometimes. Not every day.

I just wonder if the positive messages we present at home (overtly or subliminally) are enough to counter the barrage of information the kids will receive outside our home--from media, their peers...and, yes, other parents. The experts I'm talking to seem to agree: We can't avoid bad messages about body image. We can't realistically put our daughters in a bubble so that they never glimpse a magazine, see an ad featuring a too-thin celebrity, or handle another Barbie doll ever again. It comes down to setting examples at home and learning to reframe our thinking when it comes to our bodies. Filter the messages you receive. Teach your daughter how to filter them. Sons too. They're not immune. (Note: The article I'm writing is geared toward men and women. When it's published, I'll link to it here.) UPDATE: HERE

I haven't decided if I'll say anything to this other mom at preschool. I don't know her well, but I see her several times a week, and I genuinely wish she could be happier with herself. There are days she oozes self-contempt. I'm caught between feeling deep compassion for her and wanting to avoid her entirely. I don't know if there's anything I could say to change her attitude. But I could ask her not to discuss body image/body size in front of my kids. Does that make me a self-righteous jerk? Or a protective mom?

Have any of you encountered body image issues with your young daughters? With other parents? How do you handle it?

UPDATE: See part 2 of this discussion here. 

9 comments :

  1. This was interesting to read! I think my first impression is that I know the difference of when I'm speaking to my own kids vs. other's. I will admit I've told Austin before that I am going running so I won't get fat (that is sometimes why I go...other times because I really enjoy it...), but I would never say it to another child. This is just one of many areas that I wonder if I would be different if I was the mom of two girls (yes, I know it effects boys too). But, I also believe that there is value in speaking the truth. I don't want to be overweight.

    Good thought provoking post! As for the other mom, I think if it was me, I would talk more to B about how to think about what that mom is saying rather than to the mom. I think we can help our kiddos more in figuring out how to filter such info. rather than protecting them from hearing/seeing it...good conversations for moms and kids!

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  2. I try to not share any dislike for for my body or any others. I try to show her that I am happy with my body unless it makes me hurt (bad back complain about that all the time). My husband loves the way I look and I've come to terms with how I look, I will be getting surgery next year on my body that I will have to explain, breast reduction, but its not to look better just feel better, my daughter will be 6 so she will definitely know what's going on. I stress that non-healthy food might taste good but won't make you feel good or can make you sick. I have had a hard time with body image when I was a teenager and will try and create as much self-confidence in my girls as I can because that's what its about.

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  3. Looking forward to the day when I overhear a Mom tell her daughter that she's going to the gym so she can be stronger...

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  4. There is not much we can do to shield our daughters from society's perception of how women 'should' look. It is everywhere, in movies, magazines, tv, etc. However, we can help with how they take in that message. With enough self-confidence, I belive they can ignore or be less influenced by by others' perceptions or comments of image.

    It sounds as though the fellow mom in your daughter's class lacks this confidence. For some reason, she has been conditioned to think that "I hate her" is the 'right' response to seeing a beautiful person. What makes one woman see a beautiful, fit person& think "Ugh, I hate her", and another women to look at the same person and think "Wow, she looks great!"? My opinion is that it is their inner strength and self-confidence. If we can model this for our daughters, and help build this in them, I think they will be fine.

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  5. I think your point about our daughters mirroring everything we do is dead on. My husband and I were horrified last year when our then 3 year old got undressed for her bath and then went over and stepped on the scale and said, " this is what girls do." Clearly she had seen me weigh myself before taking a shower. I do weigh myself, and like many other mothers, I have been working to get off baby weight. I am running a marathon next month, but not to loose weight, instead to feel better and to face a big challenge. We do talk about exercise and being healthy in our house. Our children eat their veggies to they can be strong. We run and play outside so we can be healthy. And yes, my daughter, and son for that matter, still step on the scale regularly. We always praise them for whatever the weight (I never actually pay attention to the weight). More we talk about how much they are growing and how big they are. I hope it turns out to be a positive relationship with weight and the scale. Can't wait to learn what you find out.

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  6. love this & am mulling more of a response than thoughtful mama, you.

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  7. I was a clinical social worker for 15 yrs. and did a lot of work with adolescent girls, many with eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm behaviors etc. Of course, most of these girls suffered various forms of emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood so I read a lot during that time to try and understand how all of this on top of today's media culture is affecting young girls. My own experience seems so innocent compared to what they are exposed to now. The common thread among all the girls I worked with was a fractured relationship or lack of one or both parents (usually a father). Mother's are obviously important to a girl's development because they are the first role model and can provide those protective messages about body image. But don't forget Dads, whose loving acceptance is really important too. There is also a lot we can learn from other cultures who celebrate the different phases of a girl's development (like menarchy). I don't have a daughter (yet) but I know I'll never hand her a box of pads and say "I'm sorry, you're a woman now". Needless to say, that didn't do much for my self esteem! Gina, I agree you are doing the best thing you can do for your daughter now by being a good example and providing her a loving, supportive environment to grow up in. That other mom has her own work to do.

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  8. Great Post...I have 4 boys and how I feel about my body it just as important around them. I noticed when I've been on strict diets they were so keyed in on them. Not good. They started to be so aware of foods and how I was associating them as negative. It just was not a good thing. Thankfully I have a great husband who never says anything negative about my extra baby weight. In fact he has corrected the boys when they make fun of my tummy. He reminds them it's there because mommy had to make room for them and then kisses it. I'm by no means obese but now I see a strong, curvy woman and I'm proud of it. Daughter/Son I feel my view on body image is just like yours. I do think for a mom of a daughter it has to resonate deeper. on a side note, I've experienced mom's who are mouthy. I have learned those moments that are awkward and cringe-worthy become great teaching moments.

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  9. made me think of the book "The Help". "You is kind. You is smart. You is important."

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