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.