December 11, 2013

Protecting My Daughter’s Body Image.

My daughter came home one day from school a little upset.

Apparently some of her friends had been teasing her about her size. Those of us that are parents can understand that seeing your child hurt or made fun of is incredibly painful—especially when I can’t sweep in and fix it. To say that this is frustrating is an understatement. The only thing I can do is try my best to instill confidence in her so that she can feel comfortable in her own body and not allow what others say to effect her.

But as a woman I know she already has her gender as an issue when it comes to image and self-criticism. Women are more likely to have self-image concerns than men.

In the United States 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from some kind of eating disorder. Forty to 60 percent of girls in elementary school (ages 6-12) are already worried about their size and are concerned about being fat. My question is: what are we doing to our children? Why are first graders worried about how they look in a bikini?

Is it the Barbie dolls? Is it the media-obsessed culture? It it our children overhearing our adult mutterings and ramblings about our own bodies?

The irony is, that my daughter is thin—skinny, actually.

She is tiny all over. Her friends do not tease her about being overweight; they tell her she is too skinny. They tell her she looks like she is starving and say she needs to eat more cheeseburgers. Some people scoff at her sensitivity to this and tell me she is lucky to be so thin, but I can tell you that this can be just as hurtful as telling an 11 year-old girl she is fat and needs to diet. The message is the same: you need to change.

I can tell you this because I had the same problem as a child.

I was a skinny girl. I was the kid that almost always was placed in the front row of the school picture in the early grades and as I started to grow, I grew taller but not wider. By the time I hit 7th grade, my mother had trouble finding clothes for me because I was too tall for the girls’ section and not filled out enough for the juniors section. Luckily, we found a store called Small Stuff, and she bought a few size 0 pants.

As time passed and my teenage appetite took over, I eventually filled out more, but the comments that I heard growing up regarding weight, whether it was that I was skinny or that I was looking a little chunky, had shaped my view of myself for years. It’s taken a long time to de-program myself from those early years, and sometimes I can still hear my thoughts swaying in a negative direction.

I grew up in a family where dieting was common. My parents had always struggled with weight, and my mom and grandma both attended Weight Watchers meetings, Jazzercize classes, and danced along to Richard Simmons in our living room. I saw how hard it was for them to shed pounds and heard the happy remarks of their successes: “Oh you look great? Did you lose weight?” And I witnessed their struggles: “I need to get back to my diet.”

Margeau Stumphauzer

In 2011 a close friend of our family experienced the horrific results of  body dymorphic disorder. Their 29 year old daughter, Margeau, succumbed to the eating disorder that she had been struggling with for years.

I can’t imagine the deep internal frustration felt by a parent watching their child waste away because of internal demons. After they picked up the pieces of their grief, they did the only thing they could do at that point. They built a foundation to try to help other children/teens and adults grappling with the same demons.

I see a trend of postings about women finding self-acceptance and celebration in their bodies lately. This is awesome and I applaud it. We need to teach children to accept themselves and we need to imprint that in our own minds and hearts.

However, I also see a negative viewpoint popping up more often when it comes to women that are naturally thin.

Comments that skinny women are starving themselves or references to being a “skinny bitch” are equally damning as calling a curvy women fat. Some may not think so, and some may refer to these women as lucky or privileged.

But I can tell you that the daughter of our friend was beautiful and also naturally thin, but apparently did not see herself as privileged.

Looking at my own daughter I see a young, healthy, 11 year old girl. I see a girl that has potential. I see a girl that eats like every other 11 year old girl—sometimes salads and tomatoes and sometimes potato chips and hot dogs. I see a girl that is smart and funny and athletic. I see beauty.

And I hope that she sees all of this and more.

The conversation on body image needs to shift. Thin is not in and fat is not where it’s at. All of these messages can be confusing to a child. How about instead of focusing on our bodies, let’s focus on cleaning up our diets. Let’s focus on getting outside and away from the TV/computer/iPad/smartphone. Let’s focus on the environment.

Let’s teach them that there is more to life than an image.

*Margeau’s Free to Be Project

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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons


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