Family, Self

Can I Stop My Girls From Hating Their Bodies?

healthy body image

"Am I pretty?"

My daughter was 5 years old the first time she asked me that. Amidst a daily stream of constant chatter and endless questions, those three softly spoken words screamed out at me and made me stop whatever it was I was doing — dishes, dicing, daydreaming — and look at her, sitting there coloring at the kitchen table.

What came into my mind first was this:

You're beautiful. You're so beautiful that there are times when it makes my chest ache just to look at you. The flush of your cheeks, the shine of your hair, the curve of your jaw, your gap-toothed smile, your deep, dark eyes. There is nothing about your looks that is less than amazing. I could stare at you for hours; I have and I do.

I didn't say any of that, though. Instead I tried to preserve her confidence and stave off a future filled with body worries in the two minutes I had before her attention turned to other things. "Yes, you're pretty," I told her, quickly brushing the issue aside. "You're also smart and strong and kind. What do you think is the most important?" "Smart," she replied, working on her drawing, her mind already on its way elsewhere.

"What made you ask that?" I said a few minutes later, tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear.

"I don't know," she shrugged. "I just wondered."

I searched for signs that her question had deeper roots, but she seemed wholly unaffected. She was curious, it seemed, in the same way she's curious about the way a spider builds its web, why a tree is called a tree, where the moon goes in the early morning light. To her, it was just another question: "Am I pretty?"

To me, it felt like so much more. It felt like the end of something innocent and the start down a long and bumpy road that I don't want her to have to travel.

As a woman, body image issues have drifted in and out of my life for as long as I can remember. They've never suffocated me, fortunately. They've never beaten me down or driven me near the point of desperation. They're just that little albatross I can't quite manage to shake every time I squeeze into a pair of jeans or put on my swimsuit for our Saturday morning swim lessons; every time I turn sideways to see my reflection in a mirror or compare myself to someone I consider beautiful. They're the questions that tumble around in my head: Do I look old? Do I look fat? Do I look pretty? 

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At a certain point I stopped giving the matter so much attention; released myself of this lingering self-doubt. Having babies had a lot to do with that. These days my body bears the scars of two pregnancies, but I feel as though I'm entitled to them. Carrying two children, delivering them, raising and comforting them, has helped me see past the so-called flaws. That's not to say that I'm cured of this curse entirely. It waxes and wanes, the seeds planted so long ago that self-doubt has become second nature. Now that I'm mom to two little girls, it means a lot more. To think that these same insecurities may already be taking root in them — that my sensitive, silly, loud, loyal, curious and kind little girls may one day judge themselves too harshly or wish that they were something more than they are — is heartbreaking.

So I'm telling them the things I probably should have been telling myself all along: You're beautiful — and you're more than that. You're smart, you're strong, you're funny, you're interesting, you're kind, you're capable. You're loved. You matter. All of this is true, even if somebody one day tells you it's not. And in those moments when you feel any tiny bit less than all of those things, whether they come when you're looking in the mirror or looking at the world around you, know that everybody feels exactly the same way from time to time. Be gentle with yourself, be flawed, be forgiving.

I'm over it, this endless cycle of body fixation that so many women get sucked into. Why? Because it's exhausting and cruel and there are so many things that matter so much more than how you look in a bathing suit. And because I want my daughters to always see themselves the way that I see them: Incredible, immeasurable, enough.

What do you hope to teach your children about body image?